Bear Down

I would imagine, firsthand if I were a mother to something other than a cat, that feeling proud of your children when they accomplish something is probably one of the best feelings on earth. I would imagine that, when they finish college, or get married, or when they land the job of their dreams, it’s probably a bit too much to bear – that fullness you might feel inside, that beaming, happy feeling that has you grinning from ear to ear.

I’m not a mother, and won’t be anytime soon, but I know that feeling still. I’m sure it’s a little bit different, but all the while, I am definitely that ‘happy, proud, beaming from ear to ear’ person I described.

Chris (aka Hubs), after somewhere between 3 and 4 years of crunching numbers on Excel, working with probably 20 different groups (some good and downright horrible), and all the while working full-time at a job that has been much less than rewarding, has finished school – once and for all. I was definitely proud when he got into Northwestern’s MBA program, but I’m infinitely “prouder” (and relieved) now that he’s completed it, and with honors.

When I finished culinary school, he took me to Alinea – and I’ll never forget that experience. For a long while, I’ve wondered what I’d get him for his (final) graduation – to not only celebrate his fancy new degree, but to also celebrate the fact that we, both of us, are finally. finished. with. school. forevah. It’s a big deal, I think.

And while I didn’t go the “you finished graduate school therefore I should buy you something professional, like a leather attache case or nice tie so you can look spify when you interview for new jobs” present, I swear I hit the nail on the head this time. I realized that, after almost 7 years of living in this city, we have never forked out the Benjamins (yes, plural) to watch the Bears in action at Soldier Field. And for years, season after season, we’ve promised ourselves to one day, one year, suck it up and buy the tickets. So I did.

Let’s just say that I definitely picked the best game of the season to watch in person – the December 12th Bears vs. Patriots game, the day Chicago got pummeled with snow & extra-frigid temperatures what with the windchill and all making the “feels like” temperature hover solidly in the single digits. The day that left my hands and feet feeling so numb for so long that even a bucket of hot chocolate and “complimentary warming stations” couldn’t remedy – those were the tickets I bought.

And despite all of it, he loved it. And I loved it because I knew he did. It felt good, frigid temperatures and all – watching someone grin with excitement, and that someone being someone you are so incredibly proud of, admirable of, and in love with all at the same time – that’s a feeling that’s hard to put into words.

Ever since that game, the horribly played game, I’ve been craving some more hot chocolate. I had some at work the next day – the kind that comes in the box with the fake marshmallows – and it wasn’t half bad, to be honest. But I’ve wanted to make my own, and I finally did. There isn’t much not to like about a hot chocolate full of all those awesome Indian spices, and it’s definitely a warmer for all the cold days and nights that are sure to come. Having a mug of this at home during a Bears game, a game the Bears are winning (since we are officially division title holders, again)? Priceless.

Oh, and Happy Holidays. Stay warm and stay safe out there, kids!

Chai Hot Chocolate
chiknpastry recipe; makes 2 servings

time commitment: 10 minutes

printable version

2 c 1% milk
1/2 c bittersweet chocolate chips OR 6 T sipping chocolate (like Theo)
5 green cardamom pods
1/4 t whole allspice
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 t ground black pepper
1 t g ginger
2 T brown sugar
1/2 t vanilla extract
marshmallows, optional

Combine first 8 ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer; simmer for a couple of minutes and remove from heat. steep for 10 minutes with cover on. add in vanilla extract.

strain hot chocolate into 2 mugs. top with marshmallows, and snuggle ;).

Dessert of Champions

This is an ending to all endings. This is a dessert that’s gonna make you go ‘ooh la la’. This is a dessert that makes you happy for spring and the arrival of those summer days sandwiched in between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Also, you can now wear white shoes. But if you’re a rebel like me, you may have already broken out those white strappy numbers (or flip flops).

Need to make use of bread in your freezer? Make this bread pudding. Or maybe this one, which has alcohol in it. And caramel.

Tired of cereal for breakfast? Have leftover bread pudding. With or without the ice cream. Probably don’t put an egg on top though; this is one breakfast recipe where that might not work so well….

Basically, this is good for just about everything in life.

Come to think of it, ice cream alone solves all of life’s worries. Did the hot sun get you all sweaty and stinky? Eat ice cream – you’ll forget you smell. Did you get in an argument with your spouse? Ice cream makes that seem so unimportant. Did you wake up with a hangover? Yup, ice cream probably makes that go away too. But don’t eat it too fast, because brain freeze is nothing lovely either.

Of course, it helps if that ice cream involves cardamom and vanilla bean. With a side of bread pudding.

On the other hand, a spoonful of caramel powder is probably quicker and easier to make, which is pretty much awesome if all you have at home is a canister of sugar. When all else fails you in this world, you still have sugar. And as long as you have a food processor, you can spin that sugar into pure magic.

And if you can’t quite decide what you need in life, you can make all three – which is exactly what I did. I feel much better about things as a result, and you would too.

Rhubarb-Ginger Cardamom Bread Pudding w/ Cardamom-Vanilla Ice Cream & Salted Caramel Powder

printable version (all 4 components)

Rhubarb, Ginger, & Cardamom Bread Pudding
Adapted from Bon Appetit, May 2010; serves 10-12

printable version (bread pudding only)

1 c seedless raspberry preserves
1/2 c water
1/3 c chopped crystallized ginger
1 T finely grated orange peel
2 1/2 lbs rhubarb (preferably bright red), ends trimmed, cut into 1/2-inch-wide pieces

3/4 c sugar
3 large eggs
2 c 2% milk
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
cooking spray
1 loaf cardamom-spiced bread (recipe below) or storebought  brioche or challah
(1/2 t ground cardamom, if you don’t make the spice bread)

Whisk preserves and 1/2 c water in heavy large skillet over medium heat until preserves dissolve (if using seeded preserves, strain seeds out and toss seeds; add rest back into skillet). Sprinkle ginger and orange peel over. Scatter rhubarb evenly in skillet. Bring mixture to simmer over medium heat, occasionally stirring very gently, until rhubarb is slightly tender but still intact, about 10 minutes. Pour mixture into large sieve set over large saucepan. Let drain 15 minutes. Cover each separately and chill. Can be made at least 1 day in advance.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Whisk sugar and eggs in medium bowl. Place milk in heavy medium saucepan. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Gradually add hot milk mixture to egg mixture, whisking custard to blend, but doing this slowly so as not to scramble eggs (add ground cardamom here if using).

While heating milk (above), place bread cubes on a sheet pan and toast for about 7 minutes. However, if you have “old” bread that’s somewhat dry/stale, skip this step.

Spray a 9×13-inch baking dish. Arrange enough bread cubes in dish to cover bottom (will have some gaps). Spoon half of rhubarb evenly over. Repeat with bread and rhubarb. Pour custard over. Place baking dish in roasting pan. Add enough hot water to pan to come halfway up sides of dish.

Bake pudding until just set in center, about 50 minutes. Remove from oven. Let stand in water bath 30 minutes; remove. Meanwhile, boil reserved syrup until reduced to 1 cup, about 10 minutes. Keep warm.

Brush top of pudding with some rhubarb syrup. Spoon warm pudding into bowls; top with syrup and ice cream (or whipped cream, or nothing).

Cardamom Spice Bread
Adapted from Saveur Issue #128; makes 2 loaves

printable version

1 1/3 c warm milk
2/3 c sugar
4 t g cardamom
2 1/4-oz. packages active dry yeast
3 eggs, lightly beaten
5-5 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 t kosher salt
5 T unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ cubes, room temp
1 T cream or milk
1 egg yolk

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, combine milk, sugar, 3 t cardamom, and yeast; stir together and let sit until foamy, 10 minutes. Add eggs; mix to combine. Add flour (may not need full amount; add until dough forms) and salt. Replace paddle with hook attachment; knead dough on medium speed for 2 minutes. While kneading, slowly add butter in batches, mixing until incorporated before adding next batch, 3–4 minutes; continue kneading for 4 minutes more after last of butter is added.

Transfer dough to a bowl oiled or sprayed with cooking spray and cover with plastic wrap; let sit until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Punch down dough; cover again with plastic wrap and let sit until fully risen, 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 F. Transfer dough to a work surface and divide into 2 equal pieces. Set 1 piece aside and divide other piece into 3 equal portions. Roll each portion between your palms and work surface to create a 16″ rope. Braid ropes together to form a loaf, following the instructions below. Transfer loaf to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Repeat with second dough piece. Cover loaves with plastic wrap and let sit until slightly puffed up, about 20 minutes. (For fancier braids, search You Tube.)

Whisk together remaining cardamom, cream/milk, and egg yolk in a small bowl; brush over loaves. Bake, one loaf at a time, until golden brown, 20–25 minutes. Transfer to a rack; let cool 10 minutes before serving.

Cardamom-Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Adapted from The Spice House; serves 6-8

printable version (ice cream only)

prep time: 1-2 days before serving

1 c half & half
1 c organic 2% milk
1/2 vanilla bean
5 green cardamom pods, crushed slightly
4 egg yolks
3/4 c sugar
1/8 t g cardamom

pour half/half and milk into medium-sized heavy saucepan. scrape seeds from vanilla bean, and toss into milk with cardamom and vanilla bean pod. slowly bring to a boil, remove from heat, and cover to steep for about 20 minutes.

slowly heat milk mixture up, just to a boil. meanwhile, whisk egg yolks and sugar together until light yellow. when milk is just boiling, remove from heat and slowly add milk, whisking simultaneously, into the yolk/sugar mixture. whisk constantly until all milk is incorporated (you can slowly add milk, then whisk if you’re less coordinated; but work quickly!), then pour mixture back into saucepan. over low heat, stir almost constantly until it thickens (forms a custard). the mixture will coat the back of a spoon at this point, and this means you are ready to go!

pour mixture back into bowl from egg yolk mixture, add ground cardamom, and place that bowl over an ice water bath to cool custard quickly. for best results, chill overnight to develop flavor. once ready, freeze in an ice cream machine according to manufacturer’s instructions (usually 15-20 minutes). freeze overnight.

Salted Caramel Powder
makes at least 1 cup

printable version (caramel powder only)

2 c sugar
Maldon sea salt

Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil. In a large heavy skillet, heat sugar over medium heat. Swirl sugar, but try not to stir. Once sugar melts, it will slowly caramelize. If clumps form, stir to melt sugar. Remove from heat once caramel is light gold.

Pour hot mixture, carefully, onto sheet pan. Move around to make a thin sheet. Let hot caramel cool and harden, about 30 minutes.

Once caramel is cooled, remove from sheet pan and break into small chunks. Add chunks into a (dry!!) food processor and blend until a powder forms. Place in a dry container and refrigerate. Stores for 1 month, if it lasts that long!

Battle Ginger: Luck of the Draw

In Iron Chef land, winning is everything. Well, winning and spending time with friends, is everything. A win is a true testament to your culinary skills, your creativity, and in some cases, your hard work. And if that wasn’t enough, winning entitles you, as Iron Chef, to select the theme ingredient the next time around. It is a daunting, but coveted, task. When that task is yours, you take advantage and choose wisely, not knowing when, or even if, you’ll ever get that chance again.

Unless that is, you are as busy as Emily, our past reigning Iron Chef and one of our founding competitors. Up to her eyelids in work events and such obligations, she was forced to surrender her title prior to battle, unable to even select the ingredient, let alone defend her throne. Bummer, huh?

As a result, our ensuing party was ingredient-less, and we were in need of a quick fix given our decision to forge ahead, otherwise put off IC for another two months. So, someone was about to get lucky; we decided to draw a name and that person would choose, and that person was Rachel. To my excitement, she chose well, and in no time, Battle Ginger was upon us.

Ten Iron Chefs in, I’ve learned to choose a dish quickly, unwaveringly, and with confidence. I was ready on Wednesday, knowing sushi would be made, along with a strange dessert I’d never heard of, ‘oeufs à la niege’ which for those who either aren’t French or haven’t taken a couple of semesters of it in college, means ‘eggs in the snow’.

You start out by separating a few eggs, and with the egg whites you whip them with sugar and ginger into a smooth silken bowl of firm, shiny peaks. And instead of slathering the meringue onto the base of a key lime pie and then breaking out your blow torch, you poach said meringues, dollop by dollop, in milk that’s flavored with cardamom and a generous amount of ginger – or if you have a crowd of lactose-challenged people, you use almond milk instead, which works perfectly.

After the little meringues are poached and literally resembling hard-boiled and peeled eggs, you turn that almond milk into custard using the remaining milk and egg. Sure, you could use that custard to spin up some ice cream, but then these little eggies would be snow-less, and that’d be a sad state of affairs.

Especially if those eggs-in-custard win you back your Iron Chef title :). Just sayin’.

Left to right: vegan ginger chocolate cupcakes with ‘cream cheese’ icing, ginger chocolate cookies, ginger ale & vodka, ginger-garlic shrimp and asparagus with ginger rice, ginger rogers cocktail, crunchy shrimp sushi roll with ginger-soy sauce and pickled ginger, ginger and pecan stuffed apples, vegan butternut squash and ginger chili, ginger crab cakes with tomato-ginger jam.

The Top Three:

  1. Ginger-Cardamom Oeufs à la Niege (dairy & gluten-free)
  2. Butternut Squash & Ginger Chili (vegan & gluten-free)
  3. Ginger Crab Cakes w/ Ginger-Tomato Jam


In Chi-town and wanna join? Holler! Next IC: 7/10/10.

Ginger Cardamom Oeufs à la Niege
Adapted from Gourmet, September 2008; makes 8

i’m so not kidding here – this is an easy dessert that can be made well in advance, and the recipe is easily adaptable to other flavor variations. i picture a chocolate-basil version, and now i’m drooling. and if you’re not lactose-intolerant, feel free to use whole milk instead of almond milk. to halve the recipe, use 3 eggs (2 whites and 2 yolks + 1 whole), a little less sugar, and half the milk.

printable version

4 eggs
3/4 c sugar, divided
1  t ground ginger, divided
4 c almond milk
1 chunk of fresh peeled ginger (size of your thumb)
1/4 t ground cardamom
1/2 t cornstarch
1/8 t salt
1/2 t vanilla extract
1/4 c shelled pistachios, chopped

Line bottom of a small sheet pan with parchment paper.

Separate 3 eggs; put yolks in a large bowl and whites in another. Add remaining whole egg to yolks.

Beat whites with a pinch of salt using an electric mixer until they hold soft peaks. Add 1/2 c + 1 T sugar and 1/2 t ground ginger in a slow stream, beating at medium-high speed until whites hold stiff, glossy peaks.

Meanwhile, bring almond milk to a bare simmer with remaining ground ginger, fresh ginger, and cardamom in a wide 4-quart heavy pot over medium heat.

Drop 8 large dollops (or 16 small, depending on what they’re being served in; if large bowl use large dollops) of beaten whites into milk and poach at a bare simmer, turning once, 4 minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to lined pan (reserve milk). Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Whisk remaining 3 T sugar, cornstarch, and salt into yolk mixture. Add hot almond milk in a slow stream, whisking until incorporated, then return to pot. Cook, stirring often, until thickened and an instant-read thermometer registers 170 F. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl. Stir in vanilla. Drop ginger back into mixture and allow it to continue to steep in hot custard until ready to serve.

Quick-chill custard by setting bowl in an ice bath and stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes or refrigerate until ready to use. Remove ginger chunk and ladle chilled custard into 8 bowls (or cups) and put a meringue in each. Sprinkle with nuts.

Captain’s Corner

There was this store in my hometown, a store-slash-pseudo-restaurant, that was frequented by us highschoolers looking for afternoon cigarettes and the others who were going for an after-school hot dog. At some point, the Captain’s Corner turned into a regular hangout, a place of comfort where friends mingled, where we found older kids to buy us smokes, and where we people-watched till the joint closed for the day and we were forced to loiter elsewhere, which was usually behind “the mall”.

The word comfort emits a different connotation for me today, and in most cases, has something to do with food. And why shouldn’t it?


As a kid getting home from school, I had the swingset and a backyard with a grapevine-woven fence; today, it’s a balcony with a grill and a glass of wine. In high school, it was the Captain’s Corner or a drive up and down Vernon Avenue, with anything from Pearl Jam to Biggie Smalls blaring out of the busted speakers and vibrating the windows. Now, it’s an outdoor BYOB for Happy Hour or the tunes Hubs spins on his fancy record player while I whip up something for dinner. And in college, there was certainly alcohol and pizza, but comfort meant a trip home for fresh laundry and quiet time with the family. While I’d still love to have mom do my laundry, I instead find comfort in those carefully prepared, overly luscious dinners – the ones you eat slowly, bite by bite, because they just feel like home, childhood, and all those things you want to last forever.

This is one of those meals.

Country Captain, a dish I’d never heard of until exactly 1 month ago, is the ultimate comfort dish. Though it’s Indian at heart, it’s more commonly lauded as a Southern dish, which either means I’m a fake Southerner or that it’s made in a Southern area other than North Carolina (supposedly Savannah, mainly). Plus, when you have Aunt Faye and her chicken pastry and fried chicken – do you really need anything else? I rest my case, if there was one against me…

So this country captain business – it is really somethin’. And while the cauliflower was almost enough to make me toss this recipe aside, my curiousity and love of all the other ingredients won me over. Fortunately, I not only tolerated, but I thoroughly enjoyed the cauliflower. They are perfectly crunchy, buried in the absolute best smelling made-from-scratch curry powder and crushed tomato sauce you ever did smell, and not only do those little peas in your freezer add some color, they’re juicy in a way, and they pop between your teeth. Dried cherries, as odd as it may seem, are crucial, as they rehydrate and become chewy blips of sweetness.

If you need one more reason to make this, other than all the goodness listed above and the fact that this only dirties one pot, and that it freezes like a dream (I have one serving left), how does finishing this off with a healthy slap of peanut butter sound? I’ll stop here, and I’m heading straight for the freezer…

What’s your favorite comfort food?

Country Captain with Cauliflower and Peas
Adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2010; serves 6

printable version

spice mixture
1 1/2 t coriander or coriander seeds
1 t fennel seeds
1 t cumin or cumin seeds
1/2 t whole black peppercorns
3 whole cloves
1/4 t cardamom seeds (from 3 whole green cardamom pods)
1 1/2-inch piece cinnamon stick
1/2 t turmeric
1/4 t cayenne pepper

5 T peanut oil, divided
1 small head of cauliflower, trimmed, cut into 1-inch florets (about 4 cups)
Kosher salt
2 lbs skinless boneless chicken thighs, trimmed, cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces
1 bunch green onions, dark green and white parts chopped separately
1 T finely grated peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 c reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes with added puree
1/3 c dried Bing cherries, finely chopped
1 T smooth peanut butter
1 1/2 c frozen petite peas (9 to 10 ounces; do not thaw)
1/3 c coconut shavings (or unsweetened shredded coconut), lightly toasted

spice mixture
Place coriander, fennel seeds, cumin, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom seeds, and cinnamon stick in small dry skillet (or, to save dishwork, in the bottom of the heavy large pot, below). Stir over medium heat until fragrant and slightly darker in color, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat; cool. Finely grind spices in spice mill or in mortar with pestle. Transfer to small bowl; add turmeric and cayenne.

Heat 3 T oil in heavy large deep pot over medium-high heat. Add cauliflower florets; sprinkle with coarse kosher salt and sauté until beginning to soften and brown in spots, 6 to 7 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl.

Add remaining 2 T oil and half of chicken to same pot; sprinkle with coarse kosher salt and sauté until chicken is light brown on all sides, about 6 minutes. Transfer chicken to large bowl. Repeat with remaining chicken.

Add white parts of green onions, finely grated ginger, and minced garlic to same pot; reduce heat to medium and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground spice mixture; stir 15 seconds. Stir in 1 1/2 cups chicken broth and bring to boil, scraping up any browned bits. Add crushed tomatoes; reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer 15 minutes. Stir in dried cherries and peanut butter; return chicken and any accumulated juices to pot. Cover and simmer 10 minutes. Add sautéed cauliflower to pot; cover and simmer until chicken is cooked through and cauliflower is tender, about 10 minutes longer. Season with coarse salt and pepper.

Add frozen peas to stew and simmer until heated through, about 5 minutes. Ladle stew into bowls. Sprinkle each serving with green onion tops and toasted coconut shavings and serve.

Dear Santa

Hello. Hi. Howdy, Santa. It’s me, Heather. Remember?

Okay, maybe not. Although, it was only 27 years ago. I’m sorry we weren’t the best of friends then. I’m sorry my mom made me wear those pigtails – she was trying to make me look cute and innocent. But I probably still screamed and said that I didn’t like you. I definitely tried my best to get away from you but you held me in place with those, those, those huge hands of yours.

But look at us there. We were BFF. And I know you were diggin’ on my lilac jacket. And check out my color coordination – I was dressed. to. impress. I think that was our best year together. Me – stylish, you – new contacts and looser beard curls. It was all downhill from there, I’m afraid.

I’m sorry I let my mom give you those chips a-hoy cookies for all those years. I’m also sorry that sometimes I drank all of your milk before you got there, and I’m sorry that our fireplace was always really dirty. My dad really liked to build fires and he never would clean it for you, even though I told him to. You were still always very nice to me and you gave me the coolest gifts – that barbie bike rocked and I especially enjoyed  all those cabbage patch dolls. That easy bake oven? You always knew how to make me smile. And you always wrote me the nicest thank you letters, although I swear you had my dad write them for you. That’s ok, I know you were very busy.

I know I didn’t get to go visit you in the mall this year, or for that matter, the last …. 20 years. But to make up for it, I thought I would make you some tasty cookies. I hope you like clementines because they’re my favorite – so little and cute and extra juicy. And if you’re like me, cardamom might be one of your very favorite spices. I’m sure regular old sugar cookies or even oatmeal chocolate chip cookies would have been just fine and dandy, but I wanted to do something extra special so you’d remember me. I even made a special glaze on top – which kinda reminded me of the topping on those store-bought oatmeal cookies. It’s really yummy.

I hope you like these. I also made some ginger cookies, but I ate a lot of those and my husband took the rest to work to give to his friends. I would share homemade egg nog or spiced sangria with you, but that sleigh is hard enough to drive as is.

Thanks Santa, for everything. Tell Prancer hi.

Heather, your BFF

Cardamom-Clementine Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appetit, December 2009; makes ~55 cookies

these are extra special sugar cookies. and not just b/c of the extra flavors. the dough is extremely soft, even if refrigerated as suggested in the instructions. but even if you have to re-refrigerate them a few times between cutting the cookies, it’s well worth it.

printable recipe

2 1/2 c ap flour
1 1/4 t g cardamom
1/2 t salt
1 1/2 c (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp
1 c + 2 T sugar
1 1/2 t finely grated clementine (or orange) peel
1/2 t vanilla extract
1 large egg, room temp
1/2 c powdered sugar (optional)
1 T milk (optional; may need a bit more)
icing dye for colored glaze (optional)

special instruments
cookie cutters
rolling pin

Whisk flour, cardamom, and 1/2 t salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric or stand mixer, beat butter in large bowl until creamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add 1 c plus 2 T sugar; beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in finely grated clementine peel and vanilla. Add egg; beat to blend. Add 1/3 of flour mixture; beat on low speed just to blend. Add remaining flour in 2 additions, beating on low speed just until blended. Refrigerate until firm enough to shape, about 1 hour.

Divide dough in half. Form each half into ball. Flatten into disks and wrap in plastic. Chill until firm enough to roll out, about 45 minutes. Keep refrigerated. Let chilled dough stand at room temperature until soft enough to roll out, about 15 minutes.

Position 1 rack in top third and 1 rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 350°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll out 1 dough disk on lightly floured surface to generous 1/8-inch thickness. Cut out cookies using festive cookie cutters. Carefully transfer cookies to prepared baking sheets, spacing 1 inch apart. Gather dough scraps into ball. Flatten, cover, and freeze dough until firm enough to roll out again, about 10 minutes. (Note: this step may be repeated frequently, as the dough is very soft. If preferred, the dough can be rolled into a tube and cut into slices for baking, rather than cut using cookie cutters and rolled dough).

Bake cookies until light golden brown, about 12 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through baking for even cooking. Carefully slide parchment paper with cookies onto racks to cool completely. Let baking sheets cool completely, then repeat process with remaining dough, lining sheets with fresh parchment between batches.

While cookies are baking, combine powdered sugar and milk to make glaze. Once cookies are cooled, paint with glaze and let sit at room temp to dry. Wet glaze can be sprinkled with raw or decorating sugar, if desired. 

Love in a Bottle

fresh blueberries

Chris & I suddenly found ourselves without plans this past weekend and, after a somewhat relaxing weekend prior to this one (other than standing in the cold pouring rain at the opening night of Lollapalooza) it seemed like a good idea to hit the road and head over to the other side of the lake.

I’d already planned to take the day off on Friday, so Chris took it off too and off to Michigan we went. I mean, it is blueberry and peach season after all, and the folks from the lower peninsula AKA “the mitten” sure know how to farm. Turns out, they also know how to harvest some grapes.

me in the apple orchardchris picking blackberries

Our little venture was perfect. We got lucky and scored a cute little B&B in Harbour Country for one night. We used the majority of Friday and all of Saturday to taste wine (and of course buy it, again managing to procure almost two cases despite our two case + purchase in Napa earlier this March), drive the roads that instead of the smattering of skyscrapered skylines are always comforting with their heavy peppering of corn fields and pastures, and get our pick on for some dirt cheap seasonal fruit.

The wineries in southwest MI are refreshing. They aren’t snooty about their wine, but they’re proud and rightfully so. While nowhere near the complexity and richness of the Napa grapes, the MI vintners have a way of making quality varietals at reasonable prices. Our favorite place is Karma Vista and their Stone Temple Pinot (yes, the name isn’t bad either!); I will say we also went to quite possibly the weirdest winery ever and hands down the second cookiest place I can remember (the first being a tired trophy shop on the west side of Chicago – Cheryl and I decided we’d never be the same after that experience). Nonetheless, we loaded up and even discovered some new varieties including Traminette, Bonamego & Chambourcin.

bucket of blueberries

When we weren’t partaking in the grapes of Michigan, we were tackling some of the local fruit and produce farms. Having cleared out some freezer space, I was looking forward to loading up and having some good fruits in the middle of winter. I also wanted to try my hand at making preserves, and had a hankering for a blueberry buckle I’d recently read about. If truth be told, you just can’t get enough of the fresh seasonal fruits, especially if you can pick them yourself and save a little cash. We spent plenty of time at various farms: Lemon Creek for nectarines, Crane’s for peaches, the B&B for wild blackberries, and Earl’s for blueberries. I’m already thinking about how to weave a trip over for Honey Crisp apples and some pears come Fall….

preserve making

Aside from the wine, the mounds of cheap blueberries, peaches, nectarines, and wild blackberries, the real treat of the weekend was the quality time I got to spend with my favorite person. Sure, we live together and see each other every day, but the little road trips, the moments of silence in the car other than Wilco in the speakers, those are the instances I appreciate us. Those are the times I really take it all in, that’s when I sit & think, realizing I am so crazy in love. And so peaceful, so content and so downright slap-happy.

I want to take those memories, all of them, and bottle them up. I want to remember them when times get tough, if they get tough, so that we never forget those moments and so that we use them to build our relationship up rather than to ignore them and break it down. I want us, unlike so many others, to survive. I want us to be this happy forever – just from picking berries, together, in the hot August sun.

These days, love isn’t always enough. Being married isn’t always enough, and seeing each other every day surely isn’t always enough. But being in love, being in love is always enough.

bottled uppreserves

Fruit Preserves
each recipe makes 2 pints

Preserves are downright awesome. It’s a great way to make use of fresh, local fruits. And when you pick them yourself, a great way to preserve the memory as well. If you follow the canning instructions below, the preserves will last up to 1 year. The recipes can be easily modified, but do NOT try to double them as the pectin won’t work with large quantities.

I made three types of preserves: Peach-Cardamom, Blueberry-Lemon Verbena, and Blackberry-Sage.

6 cups of fresh fruit
additional flavorings (for spices/dried herbs I’d recommend 1 t; for fresh herbs 1 T)
1/4 cup fresh lemon or lime juice
sugar to your liking (I used 1 cup sugar, 1 cup Splenda but I saw some recipes that called for 4 cups of sugar; you can also use honey or other sweeteners)
pectin (measure according to package instructions; I purchased pectin for lower or natural sugar jam that also used calcium water that was provided in the package)

special equipment
a large pot for processing canned fruit
another large pot for making preserves
a medium pot for keeping lids warm
something to grab the hot jars (tongs or a special canning tool)
canning jars with sealable lid (has gummy lining) and ring (two pieces)
funnel, optional if you’re neat

Wash the fruit. Peel any peaches, nectarines, etc. Measure 6 cups fruit and place in a large bowl. Mash fruit to desired consistency (based on whether you like your jam chunky or smooth). Mix lemon or lime juice in with fruit and any other flavorings.

In a separate bowl, combine your sugars. Before you start making the jam, make sure you’ve cleaned/sanitized the jars (dishwashers are great here; keep the door closed so they stay warm) and have put the lids in a pot of simmering water (to soften the sealant) and brought another large pot of water to boil for processing.

In a large pot (I used dutch oven), combine the fruit mixture and heat to boil. Add pectin and about 1/2 of the sugar. Mix to dissolve and bring to boil again. Add remaining sugar and dissolve. Let the mix boil rapidly at least 1 minute.

Check the consistency. The jam will ‘gel’ more once it cools, so take a cold spoon and spoon out a little. Once it cools, see if the jam is to your liking in terms of consistency. If not, add in a little more pectin, 1/4 t should work and bring to boil again.

Once the jam is ready, place funnel (if using) atop warm jar and ladle jam into jar leaving 1/4 inch (or more) space. Place seal and ring atop jar and close. With tongs or other device, lower the jar into the large pot of boiling water, making sure it’s submerged fully, and leave for ~10 minutes. (The measurements should make about 2 pint sized jars of jam.)

Remove jars and cool completely, upright and in draft-free space. At some point, you’ll hear a popping sound. If you hear it once, it means the jars sealed successfully. If you keep hearing it, that’s bad and you’ll need to re-process with warm lids.

Nectarine, Living Reflections from a Dream

top crust nectarine pie; creme fraiche ice cream

We took a road trip up to Madison, WI two weekends ago to kick off a couple of busy months ahead. In addition to hanging out with a really cute kid and his parents, we also had the pleasure of attending a really awesome show of local fruits, veggies, oils, and herbs, the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Sure, the Green City Market here in Chicago is nice and is somewhat crowded (especially the crepe stand), but this WI market has a reputation to uphold – that of being the country’s largest farmers’ market. And uphold it did – as our friend put it – you are literally shuffling through the sidewalk like a herd of cattle. This herd happened to be pulling kids in wagons, pushing double seated strollers (I loathe those things and think they should only be used in large open areas without people around. You know, like nowhere), and making a bee line to the stand selling the best bread in the city, maybe the state (?), Stella’s. If you ever go to Madison, at least drive by this market – you will find a new respect for those teeny tiny neighborhood Chicago markets. [Oh, and run to Stella’s for the jalapeno cheese bread.]

cutting top crust

After the market, a loaf of jalapeno bread, and lunch, we headed to another foodie mecca, Brennan’s Market, in search of some great cheeses for the upcoming in-laws n’ friends’ visit. They’re a local business buying direct and stocking loads of cheeses, fresh fruits, and brews. Tasty indeed. The best part? They had little samples of every single fruit. And sample I did.

This, friends, is where I fell in love with the nectarine. I wanted to take that barrel o’ nectarines and run to the car with it. Please… I’d pay – you think I was gonna steal them?! Shame on you. But instead, I settled for 2 nectarines and a block of camembert and gruyere cheeses. Let’s be real – I only brought one pair of jeans for the weekend so I didn’t want to soil myself with nectarine juice. Not that having nectarine juice all over my pants was bad for me – I was saving others from embarrassment. Ya know – taking one for the team. I have to show class every now and then!

top crust

Despite my inability to take home multiple fuzz-less recessive peaches, we still had a great weekend. I enjoy hanging out with normal, laid-back parents – it makes me think that one day I might be able to have a couple rugrats of my own and not totally screw it up. But on the downside, I came home nectarineless. That was a sad state of affairs. And nothing against Whole Foods, but their nectarines just aren’t as good as the ones Brennan’s procured.


But it didn’t stop me. With a weekend full of house guests on the horizon, I knew I’d be able to talk someone into eating a pie if I 1) made it and 2) shoved a plate full of that warm, juicy, fresh-baked nectarine goodness in front of them. And I knew that chance of having said pie eaten would be increased three-fold if I also put a dollop of ice cream off to the side. But what flavor concoction would that be? I immediately remembered a dessert from Napa and an ice cream I swore I’d make – crème fraîche. Done & done.

This pie is great for three reasons: the obvious, it tastes delightful. In addition, it’s a show-stopper due to its beautifully scalloped crust that appears intricately designed and unique. But the best reason – it’s even easier to make than your typical pie crust even though it looks harder and so you definitely want to make this one for company. Definitely. Did I forget to mention the cardamom that’s added? Yeah, make that four reasons.

baked and ready

As if the pie isn’t good enough as is, when you add this ice cream to it it becomes a magical dessert that I could probably eat every day. I tell ya, when I had crème fraîche ice cream in Napa, I was gulping it up as if I’d never eaten a thing and when it was gone I was sad. I could never make another ice cream (well, maybe basil...) and I’d be happy. And sure, it sounds weird because crème fraîche by tranlation is “fresh cream” but by definition is a soured cream. It’s not quite as sour as sour cream but it’s definitely thicker. But weird tasting, it is not. Just ask the other 5 people who scarfed it down with the pie.

Love pie? Want more? Try these:
Strawberry-Mascarpone Tart w/ Balsamic-Thyme Glaze
Classic Key Lime Pie
Andouille & Sweet Potato Pie

almost gone
Top-Crust Nectarine & Cardamom Pie*
Adapted from Bon Appetit, August 2009; Serves 8

printable recipe

I think the topping is so cutesy on this pie. If you want though, you could use this same dough for a regular pie crust. Just par-bake it prior to baking the whole pie to prevent soggy bottoms (poke holes in bottom, line with parchment paper and weights and bake at 350 F until slightly brown, then remove weights and paper and bake a few minutes more). You could even double the recipe and make another top crust. Next time, I might do a top crust like this one but also add a bottom crust.

1 1/4 c unbleached AP flour
1 1/2 t sugar
1/4 t salt
1/2 c (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3 T + ice water

2 1/2 – 3 lbs firm, ripe nectarines; peeled and sliced ~ 1/2 inch thick
1/3 c sugar
2 T cornstarch or arrowroot
2 t fresh lemon juice
1/2 t ground cardamom
1 egg, beaten (for glaze)
1 1/2 T raw or regular sugar

Other: 2-3 inch cookie cutter. I used plain but you can use shapes or scalloped edge too.

For Crust:
Blend flour, sugar, salt in food processor. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add 3 T water; pulse until moist clumps form, adding more water if necessary (I added about 4 T). Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface and knead briefly just until dough comes together, about 4-5 turns. Flatten into disk and chill at least an hour (or overnight if doing this in sections like I did).

Line baking sheet or other flat surface w/ parchment paper. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 13-inch round. Transfer to sheet and chill 20 minutes. Using your cookie cutter of choice, cut out shapes, spacing close together. If needed, remove scraps and reroll to have about 20 pieces. Keep dough as chilled as possible.

For Filling:
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400 F. Place peach slices in medium bowl. Add sugar, cornstarch/arrowroot, lemon juice, cardamom and toss to coat. Transfer to 9-inch glass pie dish. Carefully arrange cutouts atop filling in slightly overlapping concentric circles, starting at edge and working inward to cover filling completely. Brush with egg and sprinkle with sugar.

Place pie on rimmed baking sheet (or else your filling will spill into your oven and smell icky!!). Bake until crust is golden and juices are bubbling at edges, about 45 minutes. Transfer to cooling rack and cool at least 30 minutes.

Crème Fraîche Ice Cream*
Adapted from multiple sources

printable recipe

2/3 c sugar
5 egg yolks
2 cups crème fraîche
1 1/2 c low-fat milk
1 T fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 t lemon zest
pinch of salt

Place eggs and sugar in bowl and whisk together to blend. In large saucepan, combine crème fraîche, milk, lemon juice and zest. Stir over medium heat until hot but not boiling. Gradually pour mixture into bowl of egg yolk/sugar mixture to slowly warm but not cook the eggs. Return all to saucepan and stir constantly over medium heat. It’s ready when an instant-read thermometer reads 170 F or when custard coats the back of a spoon and stays separate if you run your finger through the middle. You can strain here, but I usually don’t cause I’ve never had any chunks in the mixture, but if you do (from eggs partially cooking) you should strain. Pour into bowl and set over another large bowl filled with ice water to cool. Cover and chill.

Transfer to ice cream maker and process according to instructions. Move to ice cream container and freeze until firm, at least 6 hours.

*Pie is not gluten-free; ice cream is gluten-free