5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving

5 Things You Can Do Now for ThanksgivingI’m a little bit giddy about Thanksgiving this year, but not for reasons you might think. Yes, I’ll get to spend it in the company of friends, of people I love, and yes, there will be delicious things to nibble and drink, games to play, and fun to be had with some of my favorite faces. But this year, Thanksgiving, or Friendsgiving as it really is, is the first time in five years that I’m not responsible for the meal – and I’m pretty thrilled about it!

Don’t get me wrong, I love to cook for my friends, to feed them delicious treats, to decorate my home and make it super inviting, but it’s a lot of work that starts weeks in advance. This year, I only have to bring two vegetable side dishes, my best beau, some board games…and that’s it! That’s all that is required of me! I’m so excited to spend time enjoying my friends and being very present in the moment, as opposed to running back and forth to the kitchen like I normally do when hosting. I’ll be the girl on the couch with her feet up and a glass of rosé in her manicured hand – and I can’t wait!

5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving
But all of my years of hosting in the past have taught me a lot about how to have a beautiful Thanksgiving and what you can do days, even weeks, ahead in order to make the day itself less busy and more enjoyable. Let’s take a look at the 5 things you can do now for Thanksgiving!

1. Prepare your Lists
I’m no one if not someone who loves a list. And while it can get borderline neurotic any other time, if you’re hosting any big event or holiday gathering, organization is key. So get yourself situated early on by preparing your four main lists: guest list, menu, shopping list, and your day-of agenda.

  • Several weeks in advance, you should have a firm sense of who is attending the fête and what they’re bringing. Lock in folks on one item or another based on their strengths. Once you know that one person is responsible for wine and another for their famous pumpkin cheesecake, you’re well on your way to organizing your menu and filling in the gaps.
  • Having a menu in place early on should give you a sense of calm as the day gets closer because you know what’s ahead of you. Building in old reliables that you’re comfortable with executing and the rare new recipe or technique allows you the ability to foresee how to structure your time before and the day itself. You’ll know where you need to build in extra time for your first-time making a meringue-topped dessert for instance versus the mashed potatoes you whip up once a month, that feel like old hat.
  • Planning your menu in advance also allows you to buy responsibly. Thanksgiving – and all holidays – can be expensive for the person hosting. If you take time ahead of time to plan a potluck or to designate specific items or dishes to others, it can alleviate some of the financial strain. If you’re going it alone and intend on not asking your guests to bring anything, planning your menu in advance also gives you time to take stock of what you have already. You’ll know if you’re down to half a bag of confectioner’s sugar or have four pounds stacked up in the back of the pantry.
  • A little planning prevents overbuying as much as it helps you to not miss any key ingredients as you head to the store. Organize your shopping list based on the layout of the spot where you plan to do your shopping. You’ll move through your list faster this way and will be less likely to forget something integral. I always make sure to mark on my shopping list what I have a coupon for or what the sale/deal is so that I’m also certain I’m buying the specific item (the 10oz box versus the 12oz box) that is actually on sale.
  • A day-of agenda for executing the meal itself is where many folks would draw the line with list-making, but I promise you that it’s worth doing – especially if you’re new to planning or cooking a big meal for a crowd. Doing so will allow you to have a schedule to keep yourself to – one that has already considered that the stuffing can go in the oven at the same temperature as the sweet potatoes, but 20 minutes after. A day-of agenda also comes in handy once you’re ready to put all the food out to confirm you haven’t forgotten to warm something or put out the dinner rolls. Consider it a little blueprint to get you through the day.

5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving
2. Ready your serveware, your place settings, and your tools
A week or two before the event is the time to make sure you have everything you need in terms of your tools prior to the event. Take down your platters from the tops of your cupboards, pull out your box of extra wine glasses, dig through your utensil drawer and find the baster and meat thermometer, sharpen your knives. The worst thing is a stressful day before the holiday when you’re scrambling around trying to finish cooking and prepping and you still have to gather together all of the serving pieces you’re going to need the next day. Be good to yourself and take the time to plan so that on the night before, you can order a pizza, maybe trim some veggies, and take it easy. I like to gather all of my plates together, wash anything that got a little dusty during the year in the back of the closet, and then wrap everything in a clean, spare table cloth and keep them on an empty closet shelf.

5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving
3. Wash and press your linens
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I have a thing for cloth napkins. Do Bear and I use them every day? No, of course not. Laundry isn’t free, nor is it in our apartment, and we’re not jerks. That said, though, I love a cloth napkin when I’m entertaining people, so the week before, I figure out what my table is going to look like and what table cloth and napkins I’m going to use. You know what you don’t want to be doing the night before Thanksgiving? Laundry. Two hours of work weeks ahead of time will save you last-minute annoyance and anguish closer to the holiday. Of course, if you’re thinking of using paper napkins for your event, I say there’s no shame in that. Easy clean-up where you can get it is totally respectable in the face of cooking a huge meal. If linens aren’t where you think your precious time needs to be spent, I get it! No shame!

5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving
4. Plan your table decoration and layout
A beautiful table doesn’t have to be difficult, elaborate, or expensive. A simple bouquet of flowers separated into smaller, shorter bouquets with a few small tea light candles won’t put you back much and will make you and your guests feel truly special. Pinterest, of course, is a great source of inspiration, so I recommend browsing around in your very early planning stages and getting some ideas. Two things I like to keep in mind as I plan what I’ll have on my table: 1) It’s important for your guests to be able to see each other, so I tend to put together items that aren’t very tall. For Thanksgiving, think pumpkins, gourds, candles shaped like maple leaves, pine cones, etc. An arrangement that includes lower-profile items will be beautiful and won’t risk interfering with conversation. 2) Remember that you’re going to have other things on your table aside from your centerpiece. Be sure you allow room for everyone’s place setting, rogue drinks that make it to the table, extra serving dishes of sides if you’re not buffeting your meal, and elbows! Don’t sacrifice you or your guests’ comfort and ability to stretch out a bit for a really elaborate table design. The whole point of getting together is to enjoy your time together and that’s not possible if you’re getting pushed out by too many wicker turkeys.

5 Things You Can Do Now for Thanksgiving
5. Look to make-ahead dishes
After my first two years of cooking Thanksgiving, it took me about two to three days to fully recover from the amount of work and stress it was – and I was still in my 20s then! But all of that changed as I started to plan better and learned from experience that there were several key parts of the meal I could prepare ahead of time to save me such valuable time. The first? The gravy! Every Thanksgiving I’ve ever had includes this incredible gravy from the one and only Ina Garten. For me, there’s no turkey without this gravy. But you know what? Making gravy in the final moments before your meal goes to the table is hella stressful. It is the worst! So what do I do? I make my gravy two weeks ahead of time and keep it in my freezer. On the morning of Thanksgiving, I thaw it and warm it on the stove (or gasp! In the microwave!) right before we dig in. Sometimes it needs a little whisk or a quick buzz with the immersion blender to bring it fully together, but that’s nothing. Making the gravy in advance is such a time-saver and the result is piping hot, which is never the case when you’re whisking gravy together at the last minute. I make the gravy with drippings from a chicken I roast for dinner a few weeks prior and you’d never know that it didn’t start with a turkey. Take this tip and run with it, seriously!
Cranberry & Clementine Conserve
I also make my cranberry and clementine conserve weeks ahead of time and freeze it as well. For Thanksgiving prep, these containers are your best friends, allowing you to make several different pieces of your meal in advance, and strong enough to withstand the chill of your freezer for a few weeks. Last year, I even made my mashed potatoes a day or two prior (don’t freeze these – the texture will never be the same), smoothed them into a 9×13 pan, covered it tightly with foil, and about 40 minutes out from the meal, I put them oven covered and let them get nice and hot. They fluffed up beautifully as I added them to the serving bowl and there was no last minute mashing and whipping of potatoes either. If you plan a menu in advance, with the possibility of doing some of it ahead of time, you can really take a lot off your plate for the day-of, allowing you to do what you’re meant to: enjoy your friends and family and reflect on how to improve, or contribute more to, our various communities.

Whether you’re hosting your first big meal, bringing a pie, or staying home with take-out and Netflix, I wish you a wonderful, stress-free day of entertainment and one hell of a big piece of pumpkin pie. Enjoy, everyone!


Pumpkin Spice Cookie Butter Pie

Pumpkin Spice Cookie Butter PieTo take one look at this blog, you’d think it was focused solely on desserts these days. Recent posts have included, cider donut shortcakes, cookie butter buckeyes, chocolate cake with burnt oranges – Mom, I promise we’re eating real food, too! Just last week we had escarole and white bean soup one night and Bear made chicken, sweet potato, and kale enchiladas the next. It’s fall, though, and with it comes the push for food that comforts and that wows a holiday crowd. Which is what we have here – a real showstopper of a dessert for either Thanksgiving (or Friendsgiving if that’s more your speed, as it is mine) or the winter holidays: Pumpkin Spice Cookie Butter Pie!

Pumpkin Spice Cookie Butter PieWhaaaaaat? You didn’t know Trader Joe’s has updated its year-round classic cookie spread and infused it with the official flavor of Fall, pumpkin spice? Let me save you any question that this might not be the most perfect marriage – it is on par with love of Beyoncé and Jay-Z. If you’ve never had cookie butter – or speculoos spread, as it’s called in most of the world outside of the U.S. – it’s ground, spiced graham cookies that are crushed and blended to form a thick peanut-butter-like paste. My personal favorite part of speculoos spread, or cookie butter, are the little tiny crystals of undissolved cookie throughout – it takes any apple slice, waffle, or PB&J to another level.

Pumpkin Spice Cookie Butter PieWhen I saw this Pumpkin Spice Cookie Butter at Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago, I figured we’d just eat it as is, spread on whatever vehicle selected to get it into our mouths fast enough. “Maybe,” I said to a skeptical-of-all-things-trendy Bear, “we can blend it into a smoothie with bananas!” But once home, I found myself thinking of something seasonal to do with it. It is pumpkin spice, after all, and we’re coming up on holidays where you might need to bring a dessert to a party. Sure, you could bring a traditional pumpkin pie – they’re delicious – but you could also bring a Pumpkin Spice Cookie Butter Pie that tastes like the old standard and gingerbread cheesecake had a baby. I vote for the latter!

While this certainly isn’t my prettiest pie crust (don’t be like me and forget to chill your pie dough before you bake it), it hardly even matters when you have a filling this good. Cream cheese adds a velvety-ness to the mix and a slight tang, while freshly blended and barely sweetened whipped cream lightens things up to a beautiful not-quite-airy, but mousse-like texture. If you’re looking for a little something different in a Fall dessert, try this pie – it’s creamy and dense, easy to make-ahead (pop it in the fridge or freezer), and a delectable new version of a Fall classic.

Pumpkin Spice Cookie Butter Pie
Yields one 9-inch pie

1 fully-baked pie crust, cooled completely
8 ounces of cream cheese, softened
1-1/3 cup of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Spice Cookie Butter
1 cup of confectioner’s sugar
1-1/2 cups of heavy cream
1/4 cup of granulated sugar

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the heavy cream and the granulated sugar and whip until peaks form; the peaks should stand on their own when the beaters are removed. Refrigerate the whipped cream while you prepare the next step. In a larger bowl, use a hand-mixer to combine the cream cheese and the pumpkin spice cookie butter. Once combined, slowly add in the cup of confectioner’s sugar and blend completely.

Remove the whipped cream from the refrigerator and fold two-thirds of it into the cookie butter mixture. Be gentle so that some of the air of the whipped cream is left behind and aerates the pie filling. Once combined, pour the mixture into the pie crust and allow to set for at least 2 hours before serving. You can use the remaining whipped cream to top the pie or serve on the side. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 5 days.

This pie can be made up to two days in advance if kept in the refrigerator and can also be frozen two weeks prior to when you might need it. To make 2 days ahead, fill the pie crust, but do not add the whipped cream. Wrap tightly with foil and keep cold in the back of your refrigerator. Prior to serving, make fresh whipped cream for top. If freezing, fill the pie crust and skip the whipped cream on top. Wrap the pie tightly in plastic wrap and then again in heavy-duty aluminum foil to keep out frost – the double layer of protection is a must. Defrost on the counter for an hour before serving and make fresh whipped cream to top.


Cider Donut Shortcakes

Cider Donut ShortcakesBear is many things, but a baker is not one of them. Not because he can’t manage a hand-blender or feels it might threaten his masculinity (gasp!), but because it requires patience to measure, to sift, to leaven. I stray from baking for long periods of time myself because of this need to be so precise with it. Ultimately, though, I find my way back, take a few deep breaths, run off my Italian impulsivity, and get back to leveling, weighing, and timing rises and bakes down to the minute.
Cider Donut ShortcakesThree years ago, Bear was trying to come up with a birthday cake idea for me, but was overtaken with nerves that his lack of patience would win out and he’d wind up with a failed dessert. I was serious when I said he could just buy a box of donuts, but he was suspicious of being let off the hook that easily. Creativity was quick to strike, though, and on my 32nd birthday, the strawberry donut shortcake was born – a fluffy, glazed donut split in half and filled with wine-macerated berries and homemade whipped cream. Is that Bear a catch, or what? It’s such a special, over-the-top treat, that I’ve requested it for birthdays 33 and 34, as well.
Cider Donut ShortcakesBut once a year seems so long to wait for a donut-turned-layered-cake dessert, doesn’t it? Who wants to wait for a whole rotation around the sun to gently saw through a pillowy donut and stuff it with cream and fruit? What of the many seasonal varieties of treats that could be made in such a similar fashion?

Cider Donut ShortcakesThat’s how we got here, folks, to Cider Donut Shortcakes – your newest, easiest Fall dessert to have on hand for any day of the week from September through November. Do you know how people squee for these? The excitement of the donut itself – cakey in texture, but crisp with its cinnamon and sugar sprinkle – surrounding a giant ball of vanilla ice cream that’s slowly melting beneath a syrup of sauteed apples with cinnamon and cardamom? Your loved ones will lose their minds – and you won’t have to measure anything more than a little sugar and a little spice to pull your apples together! Try these soon before cider donut season wraps up and let me know what other varieties these shortcakes might inspire in you – I’m all ears!

Cider Donut Shortcakes
Yields two apple cider donut shortcakes

2 cider donuts
1 pint of vanilla ice cream
2 granny smith apples, skinned & cored, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of brown sugar
2 tablespoons of apple cider (apple juice or water would work fine too)
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon of cardamom
Pinch of salt

Slice the donuts in half from side-to-side and set aside. In a sauce pan, melt butter on medium-low while slicing apples. Allow to brown gently and when bubbles cover the surface of the butter, add in the brown sugar, apples, salt, and spices. Raise the heat to medium and sautee for 2-3 minutes. Add in the apple cider and stir to combine, then allow to cook for an additional 5-7 minutes, stirring only occasionally. The apples should become fairly soft, but not mushy, and the liquid should thicken into a syrupy consistency. It will become more dense as it cools. Remove from heat as you scoop two, rounded mounds of ice cream and place on the bottom half of the donut. Flatten the top just enough for it to hold some apples as you spoon them onto the top of each ice cream ball. Be liberal with both the apples and the syrup. Place the other donut half on top and serve immediately.


Cookie Butter Buckeyes

Cookie Butter BuckeyesFall has just begun here in Minneapolis and with it comes the updating of the pantry and the cupboard. In our house, that means bagging up the excess charcoal and stowing it in the basement storage unit, securing the melon baller in its spot in the back of the utensil drawer, and switching out the deviled egg plates for the muffin tins in the cabinet above the refrigerator. It’s fall, y’all, and we have this reorganization ritual of mine to thank for these cookie butter buckeyes.

Had I not been doing the delicate dance of rehoming the barbecue tongs at the tip-top of the pantry, to make room for the slow cooker on a lower, more accessible shelf, I wouldn’t have peered in the deep recesses of my pantry a half-full jar of Biscoff spread wedged in the corner by the Thanksgiving platter. What? You don’t have a Thanksgiving platter? That’s neither here nor there, I suppose, what you serve your turkey on is  your business. Let’s get back to the Biscoff, yes?

Cookie Butter BuckeyesUsing a remaining cup and a third of cookie butter is hardly a nightmare – heck, on a Monday I could eat that after dinner straight out of the jar. The stuff, generally, doesn’t stand a fighting chance here between me and our most darling fat cat who likes to delicately lick it off the top of my finger while gently steading the back of my hand with his mighty paw. Bear said I couldn’t feed it all to Ollie, though, so here I was with a jar of cookie butter and I couldn’t remember when I had bought it, how long we’d had it, and this lit a fire in me to figure out a way to use it right away.

I’ll admit, it didn’t take a lot of imagination to follow a trusted peanut butter buckeye recipe and substitute cookie butter. I added a little extra cinnamon in these just to get more of that spiced Biscoff flavor to come through against the sweetness of the semi-sweet chocolate, but otherwise these are your familiar, creamy, cozy buckeyes with some, appropriately, fall flavors. A perfect treat for a drive through the foliage, a picnic in the leaves, or alongside a mug of hot, steamy tea after a long day. Wipe off that Thanksgiving platter and lace up your boots – cookie butter buckeyes are your new fall BFF!

Cookie Butter Buckeyes
Yields approximately 30 1-1/2″ buckeyes

1-1/3 cups of cookie butter/speculoos spread/Biscoff
2 sticks of salted, softened butter
1/2 tsp of vanilla extract
1/2 tsp of ground cinnamon
6 cups of confectioner’s sugar
4 cups of semi-sweet chocolate melted (use bars, not chips!)

Combine the cookie butter and softened butter in a medium sized bowl with an electric mixer until thoroughly incorporated. Add the vanilla extract and the ground cinnamon and mix to combine. Slowly add the confectioner’s sugar bit by bit with the mixer on low.

Once all of the confectioner’s sugar has been integrated, the mixture will resemble coarse crumbs, but will hold together when pressed together. Form 1-1/2″ balls with your hands and set on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicon baking mat. Place the sheet tray into the refrigerator for a half hour to allow the balls to firm up.

In the meantime, slowly melt your chocolate over a double boiler or in the microwave, checking it every 10-15 seconds. Use bar chocolate here, as chocolate chips have stabilizers in them to keep their shape and they don’t melt as smoothly; in my experience, they seize and burn faster too. Once the chocolate has melted, remove it from the double boiler or microwave and take the buckeyes out of the refrigerator. Insert a skewer or toothpick into the top of the ball and gently dip it into the chocolate, swirling as you go. This will cause the chocolate to come up the sides of the ball, forming the buckeye’s distinct exposed cookie butter center and perfectly coated sides.

Place the buckeye back onto the baking sheet and remove the skewer gently. Smooth over the remaining hole from the skewer over with the tip of a butter knife (optional) and continue. When all the buckeyes are coated in chocolate, return the buckeyes to the fridge to set. When the chocolate has hardened, store in an airtight container in the fridge up to two weeks.


Broccoli and Potato Vegetable Medallions

Broccoli and Potato Vegetable Medallions
Hello, friends! How I’ve missed you and this space! While I won’t bore you with all the mundane details, a new job came my way in March shortly after our little getaway to Santa Fe and time has been a hard little beast to track down ever since. With my full-time job now and two classes to boot, it doesn’t seem as if I’ll get a full break any time soon, but the little “me time” I’m carving out, I’d like to put towards this cozy little spot where I make and bake with and for all of you. Send me your love notes of encouragement, yes? Come next semester things will, hopefully, be much less hectic and we’ll get back to much more regular schedule.

A few weeks ago, I skipped out of work a bit early to take a trip to IKEA for some office supplies. A workspace filled with beautiful, modern IKEA elements is a good-for-the-soul workplace, after all! While there, I couldn’t resist a stop for lunch which is where I first encountered their Grönsakskaka, or broccoli and potato vegetable medallions. Have you had these? They’re delicious croquettes made with mashed potatoes, broccoli, leeks and cheese that are then baked and served as a side dish. These are savory little cakes, homey in their density and richness; a perfect accompaniment to the warmer, heavier dishes coming our way as we mosey into fall and winter.

Broccoli and Potato Vegetable MedallionsIntent upon recreating them at home, I stopped by the grocery store on my way home and picked up what I suspected might be in them figuring that if I was slightly off, close enough wasn’t ever going to be bad. When I got in, I did a little research online and found that I’d mostly hit the mark with the suspected ingredients and was only short a leek, which Bear lovingly acquired after I whined about having to go back out to the store – ah, love! Now, dear reader, if you’re a frequent guest of IKEA you may be asking yourself, “Couldn’t this woman have just bought the bag of frozen vegetable medallions IKEA sells in its food section right near the entrances and exits of all its stores?” And you’re right, I could have, but where’s the fun in that?! Us Virgos, we love ourselves a challenge.

Broccoli and Potato Vegetable MedallionsSo here I offer you my version of Grönsakskaka, or IKEA’s vegetable medallions, which are unbelievably close to the original thing and can be available to you in less time than it takes to get to your closest IKEA, find a parking spot, beat the crowds, grab the bag, find a cashier, find your car, and get back to your house. You know, unless you live, like, right next door to an IKEA, in which case, do you eat their meatball dinner three times a week? Four? I’m asking for an (envious) friend.

Broccoli and Potato Vegetable MedallionsThese are great next to a slice of meatloaf, along a roast chicken, or reimagined for breakfast or brunch with a poached egg, a slice or two of bacon, and a lightly dressed salad. Make a batch tonight and freeze what you don’t use for next week. They keep well in the freezer and only need a brief thaw before they can be baked off and ready for your next meal.

Broccoli and Potato Vegetable Medallions
Yields 12 2-1/2-inch medallions

6 medium russet potatoes
1 small head of broccoli – about 3 cups
1 tablespoon of butter
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 leek
1-1/2 cup of a mild, white melting cheese, such as Monterey Jack or havarti
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons of parmesan, divided
2 eggs, divided
3 teaspoons of half and half or cream, divided
salt, pepper

Peel the potatoes, cut them into quarters, and then add them to a large pot with 2 teaspoons of salt. Cover with cold water by about 3″ and bring to a boil. Allow the potatoes to boil for about 5-7. In the meantime, rinse and cut up the broccoli into medium-sized pieces. You can also chop up the stem to include, but you may need to remove its fibrous outer layer first. After the 5-7 minutes have elapsed, add the broccoli and cook an additional 5-7 minutes, or until the potatoes and broccoli are soft and mashable. Drain the vegetables in a colander and allow to cool for a bit.

Cut the root end off of the leek and the top half of the link where the white and green parts meet and the leek gets very tough; discard. With your remaining leek, slice it lengthwise and then into thin half moons. Add the leeks to a large bowl of water and swish them around, allowing any grit or sand to rinse off and fall into the bottom of the bowl. After you’ve done so, drain the leeks in a colander and give them a final rinse and set aside to dry off a bit. In a medium frying pan, add the butter and olive oil and turn the heat to medium-high. When the butter is melted, add the leeks and sauté for a few minutes until they start to just turn a bit golden brown at the edges. Remove from the heat and set aside.

In a separate bowl, crack two eggs and whisk them together. Reserve 1-1/2 tablespoons of the eggs in another bowl for your egg wash. In the bowl where you initially cracked the two eggs, add two teaspoons of half and half or cream, black pepper, and a little salt. Return to your potato and broccoli mixture and in a large mixing bowl, mash the vegetables together. They shouldn’t be completely smooth, but not very chunky either. A few larger bits of potato or broccoli are fine, as they give texture, but they should be mashed enough where they’ll hold together with some binder.

Add the egg mixture, the 1-1/2 cups of Monterey Jack, and the 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese to the broccoli and potato mash. Stir to combine. The mixture may be a bit sticky, but it should hold together well when shaped. You can free-form the medallions by hand or pat the mixture out into a large rectangle and use a 2-1/2-inch biscuit cutter to form rounds. Once the medallions have been formed, allow to chill in the fridge for 20 minutes while your oven preheats to 375. When ready, arrange the medallions on a lined baking sheet and brush the tops and sides of each with an egg wash composed of the 1-1/2 tablespoons of egg you set aside along with the remaining 1 teaspoon of half and half or cream. Sprinkle the top of each medallion with parmesan cheese and bake for 25 minutes or until just starting to brown. Remove from the oven, allow to sit a minute or two, and serve.


It’s been a while!

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 2.52.53 PMWell, it’s been quite a bit of time since we last met, friends – and I apologize for it! Big life events – new jobs, travel, family stuff – have all been happening and caused me to have to take some time away. I’ve missed this space though and I’m ready to get back into filling your screens with scrumptious treats and unique craft & DIY projects. Before I do, though, allow me take just a few days for our annual trip to the lake, yes? It’s going to be me, Bear, and three of our greatest friends from the East Coast in a little log cabin on a lakeshore up North. Does it get any better? Check back here next week for a special post as I get back into the swing of things.

If you’re new to my little corner of the Internet, or are visiting from Buzzfeed (so exciting, omg!), stay a while and dig through the archives. New friend or old, I’d also love it if you followed me on Pinterest, InstagramTwitter, or joined my little mailing list to receive updates when I post. To do so, add your email address to the subscribe box on the top right of the site.

Until next week, have happy summer-filled weekends!

Femme Fraîche


Chocolate Cake with Burnt Oranges

Chocolate Cake with Burnt OrangesThis recipe is inspired by an old friend of my dad’s, Charlie, who used to visit us regularly for a weekend here and there when I was very small. While I’m not sure I could pick Charlie out of a line-up today if you put 6 elderly, white gentlemen in front of me with strong noses and spotted hands, my memories of time spent together are much clearer: Charlie quizzing me on my first grade vocabulary words and giving me a Tic-Tac for each one I managed to spell correctly. My father teasing him about his love for freshly grond black pepper noting that, “Charlie puts pepper on everything!” and me, my eyes wide, asking Charlie, “Even on apple pie?!” But most clearly, Charlie, coming through the door with an overnight bag in one hand and a paper bag in the other, filled with his wife, Charlene’s, chocolate cake with burnt oranges.

Chocolate Cake with Burnt OrangesCharlene’s cake was the perfect marriage of both their heritages – first generation Irish-Americans whose families lived on the same block in the Bronx growing up, making their courtship one that started in the 8th grade and lasted until they were both well into their 90s. While looking through old photographs on a visit home recently, I came across a photo from the ’70s of my young, stocky, mutton-chopped father sandwiched between Charlie and Charlene, a grocery bag at his feet with what I can only imagine is a chocolate cake with burnt oranges for him to carry home to my mother and me.

Chocolate Cake with Burnt OrangesChocolate cake with burnt oranges isn’t actually a “thing,” such as peanut butter and jelly or bagels and lox. In Ireland, burnt oranges are their own dessert, a sweet and bitter compote, spiked with whiskey, that caramelizes in the oven with butter and sugar and are then eaten, cooled, with cream or custard. Somewhere along the way, though, Charlene rather brilliantly decided to pair this golden-hued sauce with a dark chocolate cake and, well, she should be properly canonized for it. The oranges add the perfect bit of bitterness to offset the richness and sweetness from both the cake itself and the orange-caramel syrup produced by the oranges while roasting. Spooned over an already moist cake, the oranges and their amber juices turn the cake’s texture into one, almost, like a steamed pudding – soft and treacly.

Chocolate Cake with Burnt OrangesSadly, Charlene’s exact recipe is lost to history, as both she and Charlie passed on long ago, well beyond I became consciously interested in cooking and baking. I remember it enough to think, though, that this recipe is fairly close and, if my memory does fail me at all, well, this is awfully good too. What this recipe lacks in visual appeal (in addition to this weird set of half-cropped photos I’ve, somehow, managed here!), it makes up for in flavor – of which it has a lot! Share this with your favorite chocolate-orange lover or after your St. Patrick’s day dinner. With a swirl of whipped cream and a cup of tea or, better yet, an Irish coffee, this cake is sure to leave you returning for seconds.

Chocolate Cake with Burnt Oranges
Cake is Ina Garten’s recipe. Oranges adapted from here & here.

For the cake
Butter, for greasing the pans
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
2 cups sugar
3/4 cups good cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk, shaken
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
Powdered sugar for garnish

For the burnt oranges
3 large navel oranges, scrubbed clean
7 tablespoons of butter, softened and separated
3-1/2 cups of granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
1-1/2 tablespoons of Irish whiskey (brandy may also be substituted)
1/2 cup of orange juice, fresh-squeezed or bottled
1/8 teaspoon of vanilla extract

For the cake
Preheat the oven to 350° F. Butter and flour one 10″ bundt pan and set aside.

Sift the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt into a mixing bowl and blend by hand or on low speed until combined. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs, and vanilla. With a hand blender on low speed, slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry. With mixer still on low, add the coffee and stir just to combine, scraping the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. The batter will be very, very loose after the coffee – don’t fret! Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 30 minutes, then turn it out onto a cooling rack and cool completely. Once cool, dust with powdered sugar.

For the burnt oranges
Preheat your oven to 450° F. Pour 1/2 cup of sugar onto a large plate. Next, smear the oranges with 6 tablespoons of the softened butter and roll them in the sugar, being sure to cover them as fully as possible. Pour the remaining 3 cups of sugar and whatever sugar remains on the plate into the bottom of an 8″ square cake pan and shake it gently to evenly distribute it over the bottom. Place the butter and sugar coated oranges into the pan and bake for 20 minutes; you may need to give the pan a little swirl halfway through to break up any unmelted sugar. After 20 minutes, remove the pan from the oven and transfer the oranges to a stable work surface where they can cool for 15 minutes. Do not turn your oven off, but do turn it down to 425° F. After the oranges have cooled enough where you can touch them, carefully cut each of them into quarters and place them skin side up back into the pan. Bake for another 15 minutes, or until the skins have browned.

Remove the oranges from the oven once more, but leave it on. Put oranges back on your work surface and in the hot pan, immediately add a tiny pinch of salt, the whiskey, and the orange juice. Return to oven for 10 minutes or until the liquid has become a bit thicker and is bubbling. In the meantime, remove the pulp from the oranges carefully avoiding any of the white pith, which will make your mixture very bitter. You only want to remove the flesh. After the liquid has thickened, remove from the oven (you can finally shut your oven off now), and add the vanilla and remaining tablespoon of butter. Stir in the orange pieces. Serve warm over slices of cake and add a dollop of homemade whipped cream.


Roasted Cauliflower and Herbed Cheese Soup

Roasted Cauliflower and Herbed Cheese SoupOne of my favorite activities is lying in bed at night and dreaming up new recipes with Bear. Usually, one of us will be looking at Pinterest or working on devouring a new novel when the other will exclaim out of nowhere, “You know what would be great to make for the blog?” What follows usually varies in both its appeal and possibility. Some ideas dissipate as quickly as they formed, while others make it onto a running list in my phone only to stay there for months without barely a second thought. Better suggestions make it to the trial stage, but fail miserably and on really good days, I’m able to take an idea and turn it into something absolutely delicious that we wind up having twice in one week because it’s that darn good. Such is the case here with this Roasted Cauliflower and Herbed Cheese Soup!

The truth is, this recipe started off as an idea to make a “loaded” cauliflower soup like one would if making a rift on a loaded baked potato. I still think this is a tasty idea (thanks, boo!) and, truly, who doesn’t want to top a thick cauliflower soup with bacon, scallions, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and other favorite toppings? I’ll come back to this idea, I know it, but before I could get there a few weeks ago, I spied a round of Boursin shallot & chive herbed cheese in the back of my dairy drawer and instantly knew this would be a pairing for the ages. A quick search will tell you that there’s no shortage of cauliflower and cheese soup recipes out there, but from what I found, no one had thought to pair this creamy, savory cheese with cauliflower just yet – at least as far as Google is concerned. It was all the motivation I needed to put this new plan into action – roasted cauliflower and herbed cheese soup was born!

Roasted Cauliflower and Herbed Cheese SoupIn this recipe, I start by roasting the cauliflower with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic until it is medium brown and nutty so that the flavor of our shining star is concentrated and ever-present through each spoonful. I know when the cauliflower is done both by the buttery, toasted aroma it gives off and when the edges of smaller pieces start to become crisp. Seriously, I could stop right here and eat the entire tray as is, but then a) there’d be no soup and b) I’d be in terrible gastrointestinal distress for the following 6-8 hours.

Paired with some golden, sautéed onions, fresh thyme, and chicken or vegetable broth, the soup is bulked up by the addition of two medium-sized Yukon gold potatoes that add to its silkiness once pureed and makes the soup hearty and warming – or, exactly what we all need to get through the remains of winter. With the herbed cheese melted in at the final moment, the soup becomes creamy with both the flavor and mouth-feel (don’t hate me for using that word) of fresh cream and the added deliciousness of shallot and chives. Top your bowls with homemade croutons, a sprinkle of fresh parsley, some crispy bacon, or all of the above for a soup that will quickly become your new favorite. Roasted cauliflower and herbed cheese soup: make it tonight!

Roasted Cauliflower and Herbed Cheese Soup
Yields 4 servings

1 medium head of cauliflower, cut into florets
3 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
Salt & pepper
2 teaspoons of garlic powder
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled & chopped
1 teaspoon of fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme
4 cups of chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup of milk or cream
3 ounces of herbed cheese, such as Boursin, Alouette, or Rondelé, crumbled
Croutons, crispy bacon pieces, or chopped fresh herbs for garnish (optional)

Preheat your oven to 400°F. In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower florets in 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Roast until medium brown, about 20-30 minutes. While the cauliflower is roasting, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a soup pot over medium heat, add the onion and potatoes and sauté for 5-7 minutes, or until onions are tender. Add the garlic and thyme and sauté until fragrant, about a minute or two. Deglaze the pot with the broth and add the roasted cauliflower. Bring soup to a boil, cover with a lid, and reduce to simmer, allowing the soup to cook for about 20 minutes. Potatoes should be tender before removing pot from heat.

Once the soup has finished cooking and you have turned off the flame, use an immersion blender and puree the soup until it reaches a smooth consistency. Add milk or cream and the crumbled cheese, stirring to incorporate. Cover pot and allow cheese to melt and integrate into the soup. Stir well and check the soup for salt & pepper; season if necessary. Add homemade croutons, crisp bacon, or a chiffonade of fresh herbs to the top of each bowl for garnish.


Lemon Chantilly Cream Puffs

Lemon Chantilly Cream PuffsI’m so thrilled to be joining Haley and six other food bloggers in this challenge to create a recipe and post for one of the 2015 Academy Award nominees for Best Picture. I was paired with The Grand Budapest Hotel, a quirky comedy from writer and director, Wes Anderson, and created these Lemon Chantilly Cream Puffs in response. As per most of Anderson’s movies – Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Royal Tenenbaums, among others – The Grand Budapest Hotel features an all-star cast. Part murder mystery, part art heist, part coming-of-age tale, the film grants roles to some of Anderson’s usual suspects, like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, but also some new additions such as the lead opposite Ralph Fienne’s Monsieur Gustave, Zero, the Lobby Boy, played by Tony Revolori. Without question, though, my favorite character in the film whose screen-time is far too brief, is Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, also referred to as “Madame D.”

Lemon Chantilly Cream PuffsMadame D., played by the incomparable weirdo that is Tilda Swinton, is the wealthy widow who visits The Grand Budapest regularly for its timeless service and the affections of Monsieur Gustave – a paramour of many an older lady. Madame D.’s first moments on screen are also her last, as she is murdered for her fortune shortly after. Stuffy, fancy, and lavish in her dress and accoutrement, Madame D. was, immediately, my inspiration going into this Oscar blog challenge. The image of her full, graying beehive and rich ochre dress quickly coaxed the idea choux pastry from my brain, developing, with time, into these gorgeous lemon chantilly cream puffs.

Lemon Chantilly Cream PuffsChoux pastry, which creates the actual puff itself, is a recipe that gets a lot of flack for being difficult, but I think this largely stems from American’s lack of familiarity with it. Truthfully, it requires only a strong arm that can endure some vigorous stirring and about 5 minutes of your absolute attention. Why don’t we make cream puffs all the time, right? I know! This version is filled with a mixture of stiffly whipped cream, lightly sweetened, and then folded together with bright, zesty lemon curd. Together, they create an airy, but rich, lemon filling that is every bit as regal as Madame D. herself. I can just see her biting into one with her crimson-painted mouth right now!

Lemon Chantilly Cream PuffsWhat makes these cream puffs extra fancy, though, is the lemon-enhanced meringue peaks that surround the cream puff lids in swirls and swoops, just like Madame D.’s coif. Set in the oven for just a few minutes, they toast up light brown and taste of the very best campfire marshmallow. They are as whimsical as the film itself, but, dare I say, far more delightful! Check out the recipe for these beauties below, but before doing so, won’t you see what these seven other wonderful bloggers have concocted for their Best Picture pairings?

Oscars 2015 Best Picture Inspired Recipes

I’m so impressed by the level of creativity here and can’t wait to try some of these delicious treats! Now, onto Madame D.’s puffs!

Lemon Chantilly Cream Puffs
Yields approximately 10 cream puffs

For the cream puffs
1/2 cup (or 1 stick) of butter
1 cup of water
1 cup of flour
1/4 teaspoon of salt
4 eggs

For the lemon chantilly cream
1/2 cup of heavy cream, chilled
1 tablespoon of granulated sugar
1/2 cup of lemon curd
* If the lemon curd is store bought, add the zest of one half a lemon

For the meringue tops
2 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar
1/3 cup of granulated sugar
A dash of lemon extract

Make the cream puff shells first, noting that they must cool completely before filling. I often make them the night before and leave them out on the counter, uncovered, overnight. If you put them in a container while they’re even slightly warm, they will get doughty. Once filled, they get soft, and then soggy, as they sit, so if making them for a party or for company, fill right before you’re reading to serve. Ready? Let’s go!

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Crack all 4 eggs into a pitcher, or bowl with a spout, so that they are ready immediately when needed. In a heavy-bottom pot, over medium heat, add the water and butter to the pan. When the mixture is boiling and the butter is melted, add the flour and salt and stir quickly to combine the ingredients. Continue stirring as the mixture integrates and forms a soft ball, which follows your spoon around the pot. The sides of the pot should be clean as the batter forms. Once the batter is ready, remove the pot from the heat and add one egg at a time, mixing vigorously throughout to incorporate each egg. You may need to alternate between a wooden spoon and a whisk, beating in the eggs. Your mixing should be fast and deliberate so that the eggs do not begin to scramble. The batter is finished when the eggs are all added and the mixture is smooth, thick, and holds its shape.

On a parchment-lined baking sheet, form 10 evenly-shaped mounds with a slightly peaked top. I create a larger mound as the base and then a smaller one on top. If your peak comes to a fine point, gently pat it down so that it does not burn in the oven. You may also pipe the batter onto the baking sheet if you prefer. Bake the puffs for about 40 minutes or until they are a medium brown (not golden). Set aside to cool completely.

In the meantime, create the lemon chantilly cream. In a chilled bowl, add the heavy cream and the sugar and beat on high until stiff peaks form. Separately, warm your lemon curd in the microwave or on the stove top, so that it is a very soft gel-like consistency and gently fold it into the heavy cream a bit at a time until it is thoroughly incorporated. If you are using a store-bought lemon curd that could do with a bit of freshness, also fold in the zest of one half of a lemon at this time. Return to fridge and allow to chill.

When the cream puffs are cooled and ready to be prepared for serving, slice each puff horizontally at the point where the two mounds merge, creating a clear, wide base and a peaked top. Very gently, scoop out the base of the cream puff and discard the moist, slightly doughy center to provide maximum space for the cream. In a clean, dry bowl, add the two egg whites and the cream of tartar and beat with a mixer until foamy. Slowly add the granulated sugar and continue whipping until stiff peaks form. Once they have, pour in the dash of lemon extract and whip just to incorporate.

Preheat the oven to 400°F again. Fit a piping bag with a large round tip and fill with meringue. Pipe swirls of stiff, lemon meringue around the lids of the cream puffs and place on a lined baking sheet. You could also dip and swirl the lids into peaks if you want to avoid the piping work. Bake just the meringue-covered lids for about 5-8 minutes until they are golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to set and cool while you fill the base of the cream puffs with the chilled lemon chantilly cream. When ready, top each cream puff with a meringue-covered lid and serve.


Victoria Sponge Cakes

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesLike a lot of people, Bear and I ditched cable a while back and, for the most part, have no complaints! Not having a huge bill is the greatest perk, of course, but so is discovering new shows. This can go either way and, if we’re being honest, at least 20% of what we queue up is for hate-watching; have you re-watched any early 90s cooking shows lately? Hilarious…and also a study in food trends. Ah, the days when the portobello mushroom was “exotic,” as I recently heard it referred to or how we watched an entire show dedicated to the “wonders” of basil. I die.

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesRecently, our hunt for new shows of the cooking variety brought us to The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) series, which airs on PBS. Oh my god, you guys, we have lost the last three weeks to watching every single episode in all five of its seasons! It is so, so good! GBBO is a baking competition that follows 12 amateur home bakers through 10 weeks of challenges. Sounds familiar enough to U.S. cooking competition shows, yes? Well, that’s about where it stops. GBBO is wonderfully antithetical to anything you’ve  watched on the Food Network or Fox. It is believable, first and foremost, and the most impressive part about it is how genuinely invested the contests and judges are in the skills and in each other. There’s no “Welcome to the Thunderdome!” element to it, no sabotage, no surprise twist ingredient. It’s just an honest competition with lots of talent and two totally delightful co-hosts. I’m so sad we’ve watched, literally, all of it. Good thing Season 6 starts in just a few months! Eee!

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesAfter watching five seasons of GBBO though, you can imagine that there’s a strong impulse to bake alongside the contestants and try out the (new-to-this-American) confections. Season after season, it seemed as if each had a challenge where the bakers had to make classic Victoria sponge cakes (also called Victoria Sandwiches), a double-layer vanilla sponge cake filled with homemade strawberry jam and whipped cream, and named for Queen Victoria herself. While I was tempted by more complex undertakings, such as brandy snaps and mille feuille, it was the simple Victoria sponge cake I most wanted to try.

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesTraditionally, the batter for Victoria sponge cakes is evenly divided into two 8″ round cake pans, but with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I couldn’t resist using my heart-shaped muffin tin. I think I chose right! In tins such as mine, one batch made 24 mini cakes, which is perfect if dividing into small gifts, favors, or serving them alongside afternoon tea, as intended. Of course, these will taste just as delicious as a large two-layer cake in proper English tradition.

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesAt any rate, I hope you’ll try these. The cake itself is so buttery and airy – just strong enough to cradle layers of sweet preserves and a very lightly sweetened whipped cream between its halves. Everyone always says that simple is better and, in this case particularly, it is absolutely the truth. I would take a perfect, tender Victoria sponge cake over something complex covered in salted caramel and spun something-or-other any day – they are so sublime! Happy Valentine’s Day, lovies! xoxo

Classic Victoria Sponge Cakes
Yields one 8-inch double-layer cake or 24 mini layer cakes; recipe only slightly altered from here.

4 eggs
1 cup of superfine sugar, plus 3 tablespoons for whipped cream
1 cup of self-rising flour
1 cup of butter, softened, plus 2 tablespoons to butter tins
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of homemade strawberry or raspberry jam (or store-bought with visible pieces of fruit), approximately
1 cup of heavy cream
Powdered sugar for decorating

Preheat your oven to 355°F. Prepare your tins. If using two 8-inch round tins, cut a round of parchment for each. Butter the bottom of the tins lightly and then lay down the parchment rounds. use remaining butter to spread all over the top of parchment and all around the interior sides of the tin. You may wish to add a slight dusting of flour to these as well for easier removal. If using muffin tins, liberally butter each hole, as well as the area in between each section in case they bake up over their individual spot.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the butter, 1 cup of sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder, vanilla extract and salt. Blend with a hand-mixer until just combined. Do not over-mix or your cakes may sink. Fill your tins evenly and gently smooth the tops with a butter knife or a cake spatula. If you are using muffin tins, each hole needs only to be filled about 1/3 of the way. Place cakes in the oven and gently shut the door. Two 8-inch rounds will take approximately 25 minutes, while those in muffin tins will take approximately 15-20 minutes. Cakes are done when they are lightly browned, pulling away from the sides of the tins, and spring back with a gentle touch.

Allow cakes to cool in their tins for 5 minutes once removed from the oven. Next, transfer to a baking rack and allow to sit until they are cold. When ready to prepare your cakes, pour 1 cup of heavy cream and three tablespoons of superfine sugar into a medium bowl and blend with a hand-blender or a whisk until whipped peaks hold their shape. Under-mixing will cause the whipped cream to ooze out of the cakes once sandwiched and over-mixing will turn the cream to butter.

If you are baking the traditional 8-inch, two-layered Victoria sponge cake, place one layer upside down on a cake plate and spread as much, or as little, jam as you’d like on the top. Repeat with a layer of whipped cream. Affix the top cake layer top-side up and dust generously with powdered sugar. If you are using a muffin tin, slice each cake in half horizontally and fill as described above. Dust with powdered sugar. Store cakes in the fridge for up to 5 days.