baking, lunch/dinner

what i had for dinner: comfort

Sometimes you seek comfort in a meal with friends to get over a break-up, sometimes to seek refuge from stress, and sometimes to celebrate something wonderful. Or, as a recent get together proved, for all three. In such a setting, the only suitable meal to accompany copious glasses of wine and frenzied let’s-just-getaway-from-it-all planning is comfort food. Comfort food that is heart- and tummy-warming, a suitable base for self-medicating/rewarding with alcohol, and makes you feel indulgent and pampered. Our meal fit the bill on all accounts and even got us pumped for that getaway adventure.

This gratin made with creamy polenta and Gruyere, hides an earthy layer of wild mushrooms and spinach underneath. It’s a great accompaniment to fish or meat and would be great on a holiday table as well.


I paired it with my go-to recipe for ridiculously easy salmon that also looks and tastes impressive: Ted Allen’s pan-roasted salmon. It makes a gorgeous plate and is great on its own or over a bed of arugula (which I lightly dressed with red wine vinegar and olive oil, salt and pepper).

The pan sauce is simply tomatoes, shallots, cumin, red wine vinegar and olive oil – bright and fresh and colorful.

Don’t think I forgot about dessert. This soul-hugging pumpkin bread pudding is  a scrumptious end to a comforting meal. I used Challah bread for its eggy sweetness, and made the recipe even easier by just using half-and-half for the dairy parts and 2 full teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice for the spices. For that extra squeeze of love, I topped it with a caramel whiskey sauce: just melt down brown sugar in butter and add a good splash of Jameson’s.


punkies…or something

So if brownies are from chocolate and blondies are butterscotch, then what would you call a tender, cake-like pumpkin bar chock full of gooey chocolatey chunks? An orangie because of the color? Or a gingerie? Or a punkie? I admit that these are all terrible names, I mean really really atrocious – but they don’t convey the wonder of these delicious pumpkin bars. With a few standby ingredients you can whip these up with the same handful of minutes it would take to read the directions on that store-bought boxed brownie mix. I added a generous amount of spice (I love my pumpkin spicy!) and a dollop extra of pumpkin (I love my spice pumpkiny!) and the results were perfect for a wintery snack while watching movies or with tea or maybe for after-breakfast breakfast. These chocolatey pumpkin bars (or whatever they’re best called) are beautiful piled high on a plate for sharing, and do be generous with the ice cold milk.


crab, you say?

Ok, I know the last post was a highly opinionated manifesto on the crab cake, so I will keep this crab post short. One other way (of the millions) that we enjoy crab is in this decadent, fragrant, creamy, elegant crab and pumpkin soup. I serve it with some yogurt (+/- chives, lemon) for that creamy tanginess that offsets the aromatics of curry spices so well. This has made it to the Thanksgiving table for the past few years but it’s also great with crusty bread and salad for a casual dinner. This curried crab and pumpkin soup is easy to make, but tastes like you have been working all day from a secret recipe on a handwritten scroll squirreled away in a trinket box you hide from prying eyes. By which I mean, it’s fantastic and people love it and you will look like a culinary genius.


good mornin’ punkin

…..and the pumpkin party don’t stop. Well, maybe it will. After all the holiday wintery festive twinkling shiny sparkling luxurious Season Shenanigans, it’s time for some ballast. May I suggest replacing the routine muffin, scone, mcmuffin thingie with a quick bread – and I mean Quick.  Pumpkin bread feels simple enough, even wholesome and earthy – but really you can’t eat pumpkin bread in July. It’s just not right. So you extend the holiday cheer just a few weeks longer, secretly, over a seemingly plain pumpkin bread (with a cup of peppermint hot cocoa – who’s to know? there’s no judgement here.) But then you tuck into a slice, and find that the bread is moist and aromatic with the perfect balance of spices, and yet so light tasting you cut yourself another slice.  Add a schmear of mascarpone, or apple butter if you’re feeling really nostalgic for last week. Mine ended up kind of undercooked at the bottom, so maybe I will bake a bit longer next time. It’ll allow me some time to consider finally taking down the Christmas lights.


that warm holiday feeling

The best parts of the holiday season are that warm, fuzzy feeling of goodwill toward humankind, the impulse to bestow good tidings to strangers, and the deep-seated flush from feelings of cheer, magic, and merriness. Of course, I am talking about alcohol. When is a better time to catch that spill of Kahlua with a mug of hot chocolate? What other time of year is vodka undoubtedly better with some hot apple cider and spices? Why else does peppermint Schnapps exist?

Let’s see, so far I’ve baked with Irish beer, Mexican tequila, and French calvados, so I clearly have an alcohol problem. The problem being that I haven’t even considered an American spirit – so it’s time for some good old-fashioned, stars and stripes, eagle clutching a lady liberty figurine-style patriotism. In the form of bourbon.

Bourbon, that great American whiskey, lends its earthy, sweet, and nutty flavor well to other traditional tastes of the holidays – namely, pecans and pumpkin. It’s a natural fit.  This bourbon and pumpkin pie with pecan streusel has everything you could want in a holiday dessert, especially if you can’t decide between a slice of pumpkin pie, pecan pie, or a shot of Maker’s Mark on the rocks. Have them all! I plan to substitute it for vanilla extract in every recipe from here on out. OK, maybe not but the idea still stands – it’s a great flavor that makes other flavors greater. And super patriotic.


The Great Pumpkin (Season)

TDay. Turkeytime. It’s the beginning of the most wonderful time of the year. The magical season of the pumpkin, of course. Luckily, I think there are some holidays surrounding this time of year, too – perfect for celebrating pumpkins! You can have your sweet potatoes and apples and peppermint – nothing to me signifies that earthy, warm quality of autumn as the sweet, rustic pumpkin. I have a few pumpkin treats lined up, but for today its a classic with a great twist – perfect for Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Wednesdays.

For Thanksgiving this year I was lucky and thrilled to spend the day with friends, telling ridiculous stories and eating way too much on a Thursday night. Everyone brought their own flavor to the table, from a fabulous sweet-savory cornbread stuffing, to Hawaiian cranberry relish punched up with pineapple. I wanted to bring a dessert that was comforting but not expected, decadent but not heavy,  cool but not bland. For the first time in years, I made a cheesecake.

This pumpkin cheesecake starts with a delicious twist, a dark and buttery gingersnap crust. I found that the crystallized ginger didn’t add much and you can certainly do without it, but don’t skimp with cheap-o gingersnaps – get crisp cookies rich in gingery spiciness and it will play beautifully off the pumpkin. The resulting dessert is smooth and spiced as you would expect from a good pumpkin pie, but creamy and tangy as only cheesecake can be. You can do without the marshmallow/sour cream topping if you like, unless like me you have a giant crack in your cheesecake the size of the Grand Canyon – in which case it makes a perfect blanket to cover up mistakes! I liked the topping which was cool and tangy, but certainly didn’t taste too marshmallowy. And don’t panic (as I did) when the melted marshmallow separates, the sour cream will stabilize it right up.

I did make some alterations to the recipe as suggested by others and would definitely recommend them:

– use a larger (10 inch) springform pan

– decrease the cream cheese to three 8oz packages

– decrease the sugar to 1 and 1/2 cups

– increase the pumpkin by 8oz

– increase the spice by 50% (or add one teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice blend)


pockets of holiday cheer (and pumpkin)

My favorite part of the winter holiday season is lighting up a Christmas tree and turning off all of the room lights and basking in the sparkling tannenbaum glow. This moment in holiday cheer calls for some creamy hot chocolate and something festive to snack upon.  In Christmas seasons past I’ve made refreshing peppermint chocolate bark and indulgent snowy coconut cupcakes, but outside the window it’s a cool 60 degrees and sunny, so these treats seem a bit out-of-place. I instead searched for something both sunny and cheerful, but also smacks of holiday specialness – and I found the perfect match in sweet pumpkin empanadas. There’s a great recipe to be found at Muy Bueno Cookbook with beautiful photos to egg you on to making these delicious treats. I’ve never made an empanada before and found the dough much easier to work with (using your hands is recommended!) than my prior failures with pastry dough.  The empanadas are dainty and scrumptious, with a flaky slightly sweet crust and a bit of sweet spiced pumpkin filling. I was able to scrap out just short of 2 dozen little empanadas, and had about a 1/2 cup of the pumpkin filling left over. The filling tastes like a spiced pumpkin jam which would be great on buttermilk pancakes or warm brioche. I plan on making some sandwich cookies with the rest using a rich and buttery sugar cookie dough I got from Little Bee Baking – extending the holiday cheer a little longer, and allowing me to carve out more time with the warm glow of the twinkling Christmas tree.