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Monday, November 16, 2015

Apple Pie with Crumble Topping & Shortbread Crust

Crust or Filling? 

I have always been a crust person, choosing crust over filling any-day. Thankfully my husband prefers the filling; a perfect match. I made this particular apple pie for the first time last year combining my pumpkin pie shortbread crust with an apple filling, then topping it with lots of crumbles.

I've always struggled with apple pie; apples to firm or too mushy. I never seemed to get it right. Then I decided to cook the apples before filling them into the crust. BINGO! that was it. I combine the spices and liquid and get the apples to taste just right, them cool and put them into the crust to bake. The shortbread crust cooks pretty quickly, so the apples are perfect and the crust is not burned!

I hope you like it as much as my family did.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Filling Ingredients:

  • 8 apples, a variety for different texture and flavor. I used Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Gala
  • 1 teaspoon mixed spices, cinnamon ginger and nutmeg (more if you like it). Pumpkin pie spice works perfect.
  • The zest of half an orange plus the juice of the orange. You may use the zest and juice of a lemon if you prefer.
  • 2 teaspoons of vanilla
  • A pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar (this recipe is not super sweet. Add more sugar if you prefer a sweet pie, or after baking add caramel sauce or serve with ice cream or whipped cream which is sweetened).
  • Optional, 1 to 1.5 ounces of Grand Marnier, Sweet Sherry or Red Vermouth
  • 3 tablespoons Butter

Assorted Apples
Prepare Apple filling:
Peel apples Cut into eighths or 10ths depending on the size of the Apple. I use about eight to 10 apples medium to large size. If you have a little extra, you can pile the pie higher. Remove the core and seeds when you cut them. Toss them into a large Dutch oven and add the spices, sugar, vanilla, orange zest, juice and liqueur.
Add butter to Dutch oven and apple mixture. Cook all together on medium heat for about 20 to 25 minutes or until apples are soft but still have texture to them. Some of the apples may be mushy but that's OK, they'll form part of the sauce Let them cool will you make the crust.
I use a 10" deep pie dish or a 10" false bottom or spring-form pan. If you don't have a 10", use a 9" dish and pile the apples a little higher. It will be beautiful.

Spicing things up

Pie Crust
Basic Recipe for 1- 9" pie:
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 stick melted butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Add the melted butter to the flour and sugar blending with a fork until incorporated. It should have enough flour to hold together, but will also feel wetter than a normal pie pastry. Form it into a disk. Use immediately using the shortcut below or roll it out like a traditional pie crust.

Shortcut Crust: Because this is really a cookie dough, at this point you avoid rolling the dough altogether.  Empty the dough mixture into the pie dish and gently press it into shape making sure it is even. Start from the center and press outward toward the edges, working your way up the sides of the pie dish. Once cooked, nobody will know it wasn't rolled.
If it breaks or cracks while you are pressing it into place, just patch it up. I have used a false bottom/spring-form pan and regular pie dish. The false bottom dish delivers a great presentation. 
Note: If you double or triple the recipe, wrap the remaining dough in plastic wrap. If you refrigerate this dough it will be too hard to work with so before using it, bring it to room temperature until it softens and can be pressed out. It is ideal for cookies.

Crumble topping:
  • 5 tablespoons cold butter cut into small pieces
  • 1 cup flour
  • 4 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons quick cooking oats
  • Optional Pumpkin pie spice
Work the flour, sugar and spices into the butter until small pea size clumps form. Add oats in and blend.  Top the apples in the pie dish with the crumbles.

Bake for 40 - 45 minutes or until browned at 350 degrees.
Remove and let cool before cutting into.
Serve with whipped cream, ice cream or caramel sauce drizzled over the top. 

Waiting for the first slice to be cut

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Christmas has come and gone, although I am still enjoying some time off through the New Year.  This year’s festivities were definitely more low key than others. Perhaps because both my daughters are working and I was left to my own devices for more time than usual. I engaged in very boring activities, like cleaning out drawers and closets, ironing linen and wrapping presents. Nothing makes time go more slowly than cleaning house.  By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, I was ready.  
Traditionally we celebrate Christmas Eve at my Mom and Dad’s home.  They took over the tradition years ago after my Grandparents could no longer do it. It’s really an open house; everyone is welcome and this usually yields about 18 to 20 of us. The guests change slightly every year but the menu stays pretty much the same. Tamales are the Mexican food tradition we look forward to. These delectable purses of corn masa and various meats and chile are accompanied by corn casserole and a baked ham. We went retro this year and decided to bake a fresh ham instead of buying a spiral cut ham. In the old days, before one could purchase a spiral cut ham in every city, we always baked our own ham. The recipe from Emeril is the one my Dad used: Emeril-Lagasse/baked-fresh-ham It was a good decision. Whole Foods had the pork leg on sale for $2.99 per pound and it was worth every penny.  At one of my several trips to the market with my Mother, we went past the Ham store, where we saw at least 100 people in line waiting to pick one up. We knew at that moment we made a great decision to cook our own.  As great as the ham and the tamales are, the party favorite is always the corn casserole. It is a simple blend of corn, sour cream and cheese, which after baking together are incredibly satisfying and one of the top ten on my list of comfort foods.  It has been part of the holiday repertoire well before I was ever around and I’m sure it will be on the top ten list when my daughters take over the holiday traditions with their future families.
Family gifts are opened after dinner and deserts are grazed on all through the night. When I was younger, I would go to Midnight Mass after our family gathering, now I am satisfied watching the Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on T.V. when I get home.  Regretfully, I never make it to the end before falling asleep. I have a big day ahead of me tomorrow.
Christmas Day arrives and after opening the gifts Santa has left, I start preparing for Christmas dinner. This day is just family and an occasional friend, for a sit down dinner.  I had a surprisingly easy menu that would be ideal for any dinner party.  Egg Nog punch greeted family warmly and an assortment of cured Jamon Serano, Chorizos and Italian Mortadella and olives, was just enough to open our appetites. The main attraction was a 12 rib, pork crown roast with a mustard sauce, served alongside black truffle macaroni and cheese and brussel sprouts in a mustard seed, creme fraiche bath. My husband made Rice Pudding Brulee for dessert. 
Setting the table is the first thing I do.
I decided to let the oven do all the work this year and I was not disappointed. The meat turned out perfectly. Amazingly, I figured out how to use my remote thermometer, without the instructions, and it alerted me when the roast was at a perfect 158 Degrees F.  While the meat rested, the macaroni went in and 10 minutes later the sprouts went in for their final roasting.  Everything was timed perfectly and all the food was ready to be eaten in sync with our appetites. Surrounded by family, lively conversation and laughter, Christmas was indeed perfect. Now, I'm onto New Year's Day preparations. Stay Tuned.

                                                                      The Punch Station is ready

12 Rib Pork Crown Roast:
Ready to roast

12 Servings - 1 rib per person
Order the prepared roast from the butcher.
12 Rib Roast
Olive Oil
4 Tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 tablespoons whole grain mustard
2 cups white wine
Heavy Cream

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Let the roast rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes before putting it into the oven. While it's resting, rub the entire roast with olive oil, salt and pepper. Combine 2 tablespoons of each mustard together and rub all over the roast. If using a remote thermometer, place it through the center of the meat careful not to touch bone. Pour white wine into the bottom of the roasting pan. Put into oven and roast, basting it every 45 minutes with white wine. Remove when the temperature   registers 155 to 160 degrees F, about 2 to 2.5 hours. After removing from the oven, place the roast on a warm platter and cover tightly with foil. Roast should rest for 20 to 30 minutes.

Sliced and Plated up

For the sauce:
Place the roasting pan over a medium low heat on the stove top. Add about 1/2 cup of cream slowly, while whisking to form the mustard sauce.

Slice through each rib on either side for a serving. Pour sauce over the top.

Black Truffle Mac n' Cheese:
12 side servings - 8 main servings
1 1/2 pounds dried pasta, elbow macaroni, penne, or any other shape you like. I used Pipe Rigate. Note: 1 box is usually 1 pound.
2 containers of Black Truffle butter
4 - 6 oz. pound Comte, Gruyere or Truffle cheese
3-4 cups Heavy Cream
2 Tablespoons Panko Bread Crumbs
Olive Oil
Finely chopped chives to finish

                                                                The Basic Ingredients

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
Cook pasta in boiling salted water for two minutes less than the instructions indicate i.e., 8 minutes vs. 10.  The  pasta will continue to cook while baking and if it's cooked through it will be too soft after baking.  While the pasta is cooking, grate the cheese and bring the truffle butter to room temperature. After the pasta cooks, drain and return to the cooking pot. Add the butter, 2 cups cream and half the cheese, blend gently. Taste for salt and pepper before adding to the baking dish.  If the pasta absorbs the cream, then add some more cream directly into the baking dish as it will absorb the liquid. If there is not enough in there, it will end up dry. Sprinkle the remaining cheese and panko bread crumbs on top. Drizzle with olive oil to ensure Browning. Bake for 30 minutes, or until a golden crust has formed. Top with finely chopped chives or other fresh herb of your choice.

Arroz con Leche Requemado: Serves 12
3 Quarts Whole Milk
1 cup Cal Rose (or short grain) Rice
2 cups Sugar
1 Cinnamon Stick
1 Vanilla Bean (optional)
1 Lemon Rind
Plus extra sugar for final torching - Turbinado sugar is best for this process but regular sugar will do.

This is a tedious process, which takes about 1 1/2 hours of active time. It's worth it though! Unlike other rice puddings, the rice is cooked in the milk slowly, like risotto, absorbing all the milk until it becomes thick and creamy. It doesn't seem like a lot of sugar, but when sugar is added to the top to "brulee" it will become sweeter.

Start by heating the milk one quart at a time in a separate pot. It should simmer, but not boil. To a large pot, like a stock pot, add the rice, cinnamon and/or vanilla bean, lemon peel and sugar. Add 1 quart of the heated milk and stir constantly. The heat should be medium-low so that the mixture is just simmering.  The rice will start to absorb the milk and as the milk is absorbed, heat another quart.  Slowly add to the large pot with the rice, stirring constantly. You can add the 2nd quart of milk in two parts. Again, stir slowly, but constantly until the milk is absorbed. Make sure to get the stirring spoon to the bottom of the pot to remove any rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot. At this point about 40 minutes have gone by. For the third quart of milk, add it in 2 -3 parts. This will help you to control how thick it gets.

At the last step, you may choose to add less than the third full quart of milk, depending on how thick you want the pudding. I like it to be about the consistency of custard before it sets, thick and liquid enough to pour. If you like it thicker, cook it longer but remember it will thicken more as it cools. My husband sits right in front of the pot with his wood spoon, for the entire process. If the rice burns, it will ruin the flavor of the whole batch so be careful.  After about 60 - 90 minutes the pudding will be ready to cool. Pour pudding into a serving dish and refrigerate. I am one of those like like my pudding warm, so if you are like me, don't refrigerate it and serve it warm, or you can take a portion out for the chef and snack on it before refrigerating.

                                                     The Final Step

The final step should be executed just before serving. To brulee the pudding, you need a torch. If you don't have a torch, you can put it under the broiler until it is golden, watching very carefully so it doesn't burn.
Sprinkle sugar generously on top of the pudding dish. If you don't put enough sugar on it, it will not form a crust as it is torched. Hold the torch about 4 inches from the dish and let the flame gently do the work. If you hold it too close, it will burn, not close enough and it won't caramelize. To serve, spoon the rice into individual bowls making sure there is a crust or sugar shard on each.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sunday Dinner

When I was a youngster, Sunday was always a family day. It started at my Grandparent’s home, where we would spend most weekends. Bright and early on Sunday morning, my Grandparents my sister and I would walk briskly and directly to St. Mary’s Church for a sleep inducing 8:00 a.m. Latin mass. As direct and purpose driven as the walk to church was, the way back home, to my Grandparent’s house, was leisurely and easily distracted by the many food stops along the way. There could have been a tamale sale or menudo (spicy Mexican tripe and hominy soup) breakfast after mass in the parish. Grandma loved these days because she could mingle with her friends knowing that Grandpa was distracted by the social eating.  Once out of the parish, on the one mile walk back home, there was the Panaderia where Grandpa, we called him Pochi, would let my sister and I each select our favorite sweet Mexican sweet bread called “pan dulce” with the individual tongs provided.  There was also the butcher shop where Grandma would check to see if there was anything special that she might get at a good price. There were three routes we could take home and sometimes on the longer detour, ice cream might play a part in the walk home or ripe fruit picked off Amalia’s trees, but that also required a visit to Amalia’s home and let’s just say she was not kid friendly. Whichever detour we took, we always ended up in the same place, the small, cozy kitchen at 115 North Fickett Street, Grandma’s kitchen.

The goodies we picked up on the way home, accompanied by a delicious percolated cup of strong coffee, would serve as our midday sustenance, just enough to get us through to Sunday dinner. Grandma would very efficiently pick up after lunch and move seamlessly into her dinner preparation. It was usually Mexican comfort food, homemade tortillas, fresh roasted chile salsas, stewed pinto beans - frijoles, and a tasty manipulation of an economy cut of meat that Grandma was brilliant at transforming into a tender and tasty roast.
Various members of the family would arrive in the early evening to Grandma’s beautifully set table. The wonderful smell of flour tortillas and a slow roast, would greet family guests on the front porch before they even entered the house. Pochi had lost his hearing when I was young, but I suspect his sense of smell became more acute because he was always first to sit around the table, impatiently waiting for the rest of us take our places.  This is how I remembered my childhood Sundays, but things change. I went off to school, siblings and cousins got married, left town, others passed away. By the time I was married and establishing my own household, I had almost forgotten about the ritual of Sunday Dinner. Then in about 1988, I read an article in one of the very first Saveur magazines called “Sunday Dinner.”  As I read it, I was transported to my own childhood and the dinner table in Grandma’s house where my Grandfather sat at the head of the table and smiled as we all chatted over one another, embellished stories from our previous week and listened to his sage advice. He was the wisest, most loving and caring Grandfather I could ever hope for.  
Around the table in Spain
At the end of the Saveur article, the writer challenges the reader to give Sunday dinner a try. I rose to the challenge and in that moment I decided that Sunday dinner was a tradition I would revive. A few years later my kids came along and I realized even more, how important it is to gather around the dinner table every night including Sunday, which became the standard in my home.  Fast forward twenty years; the Sunday guest list has its regulars and some rotating members. My parents and my best friend join in every weekend, the kids are always here and many times bring a friend. Other friends join in from time to time and If I’m lucky, my sister and her kids come by. The sound of idle chatter, some political disputes and colorful stories abound. The sound of happiness.

Like my Grandparents and my Parents, I have watched in disbelief as my niece, nephew and my children grew up, literally in front of me. Our lives are perpetual change, much like the ingredients and inspiration for my menus over the years. I cook a lot of Italian and Spanish menus, use no lard, and watch The Barefoot Contessa instead of The Galloping Gourmet. In a few weeks my eldest daughter will be 19 years old and as she chases her dreams and ambitions I know that very soon my dinner table will have an open spot. But, there will always be a place for all of my loved ones and hopefully as their lives evolve and they have families of their own, we will need a bigger table to sit around for Sunday dinner.

A recent dinner Sunday dinner in the summer with heatproof recipes. My friend Liz  joined us and took the great pictures below. Follow the links below for recipes.
Grilled Flank Steak with Chimichurri
Greek Salad on Toasted Pita

Chocolate Meringue Stacked Pavlova
All gone...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Classic Gazpacho - Easy

In the current July issue of Food and Wine, three chefs were asked to reveal how they get revved up in the morning. Two of the answers you will guess. One chef said espresso; a very sensible choice and part of my own daily ritual. The second chef said Orange Juice and who can argue with that? A burst of sunshine in a glass would rev up almost anyone. The third chef, Jose Andres, the well-known Spanish chef, food pioneer and TV cooking show host, proclaimed that gazpacho gives him his start. That’s right, gazpacho, the Spanish tomato based cold soup. In the hottest southern regions in Spain, gazpacho is like sweet tea in the south or ice in Alaska. It is made in every household and stored chilled, ready to consume in the refrigerator. In many restaurants here in the USA gazpacho is served like a salsa, thick and chunky with cilantro and other Mexican ingredients. True Spanish gazpacho is a thin liquid, similar to tomato juice but much more complex and nutritive with the added vegetables and olive oil.

During my old café days I catered a lot of parties and I would sell pitchers of gazpacho meant to be poured into shot glasses as an appetizer. It was a novel idea at the time and initially only a few brave clients tried it; they always came back reporting success stories from their guests. The party goers who tried them probably thought they were bloody Mary shots; which makes me wonder if the inventor of the Bloody Mary cocktail ever visited Spain and was inspired by this traditional Spanish “soup”. Eventually my gazpacho was a party staple and one of the most popular items on my menu.

My craving for gazpacho started on my first trip to Spain. After graduating from high school, some thirty years ago, my Mom, three of my cousins and I went on a trip to Spain to visit my cousin Mark who was stationed at an air force base just outside of Madrid. My Mom and I decided to take a long side trip to the south of Spain to visit Granada and Sevilla. In retrospect it probably wasn’t a sensible thing to do since it gets so hot there in the summer, in fact, it was unbearably hot (especially in our 70's polyester pants). There is a saying in this southern region of Spain, that it gets so hot in the summer the birds drop out of the trees. The Southern Spanish are known to be colorful speakers and even though I have never met anyone who actually saw birds fall out of trees, you get the idea of how hot it can be. That afternoon, some thirty years ago, sitting with my Mom on the covered terrace of a café, we were served our first taste of gazpacho in small bowls with perfectly diced garnishes; diced hard-boiled eggs, cucumber, onion and fried croutons. The flavor profile was not at all what I expected. It had a velvety smooth taste yet it was tangy and fresh. It became the thing we ordered everywhere we dined. It got us through the summer and we never tired of it. Cafes and restaurants adapt their own variations. Some add more tomatoes, peppers or cucumbers depending on their preferences, which includes drinking it out of a small glass, the way I imagine Chef Jose Andres does in the morning when he is anticipating his daily workload.

I had many firsts on that trip to Spain; I realized my Mom and I were friends as we immersed ourselves in a culture full of contradictions, rich with history and passion, and I began a lifetime love of all things Spanish. Whether the ice cold tomato base soup is ladled into a bowl with garnishes or poured into a glass for an on the go pick-me-up, there is no question it will jump-start and refresh you.

Which brings me to present day in Los Angeles, Saturday morning at The Grand Central Market where I spotted beautiful ripe, full tomatoes selling at 3 pounds for $1.00, I knew immediately what I was making for lunch. A few pounds of tomatoes, a cucumber, red peppers, onion and garlic (all for $3.00); I was ready to start. The simplicity of the recipe is startling and if you have never made a traditional southern Spanish gazpacho you owe it to yourself to try this recipe. I served it as a starter for dinner the next night and my husband, my parents and my best friend Denise deemed this was the best gazpacho I had ever made. I can only say that ingredients are the key. The tomatoes were ready to be eaten the same day. Their ripeness easily surrendered their juice and sweetness to the batch of summer comfort in a blender.

This is a recipe which lends itself to adaptations so feel free to add your own spin. You can spice it up with hot sauce or bulk it up with shrimp but do try it in its original version as posted below. After all these years of being a classic it still has a fresh, new taste that can wake up anybody and help you keep your cool when things get really hot.

Level = EASY
Spanish Gazpacho
Makes enough for 8 6-oz glasses plus leftovers
4 ripe tomatoes quartered
1/2 white onion
1 clove garlic
1 red pepper
1 cucumber, seeded
1 cibatta or other crusty bread roll - soaked in just enough water to cover it and soften it, 10 minutes
Olive Oil
Red Wine Vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Add all the roughly chopped vegetables to a blender or to a pitcher, if you use an imersion blender.
Start the blender and as the vegetables become pureed, drizzle in 1/4 cup of Extra Virgin olive oil and 1/8 cup of vinegar. Once smooth, stop the blender. Take the bread and squeeze out the water then add to the blender and run until incorporated. Taste and add salt and pepper.
This is where most people stop the recipe. At this point, slowly add the bread soaked water into the blender or pitcher. Add until the consistency is a little thinner than tomato juice. If you want it thinner or thicker, adjust water. Store covered in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve in bowls or small glasses.

Chop any or all of the following and serve in small bowls that can be passed around the table:
Hard boiled egg
Red Pepper

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


One of my favorite warm weather dishes is an Italian classic called Vitelo Tonnato or Veal with Tuna.
When you think about tuna there is probably an image of a childhood tuna sandwich. Tuna is usually thought of as a convenient sandwich filler and with a few variations, mayo and other optional additions, tuna can make a perfectly adequate even pleasant sandwich. I never thought about tuna in any other way. It’s kind of like thinking of your childhood “boy” friend in a romantic way. It doesn’t even occur to you. But much to my surprise, when traveling in Italy, I was re-introduced to tuna through a veal dish covered in a tuna sauce that left any ideas of mediocre tuna in the can.
I was in Milano with an Italian friend that did not speak English. I had just arrived by train from Florence and I missed the traditional lunch time. In Europe meals are held to very strict standards of time and tradition. So when I arrived too late to catch the lunch hour, starving for a satisfying meal, I was greeted not by the normally welcome open doors but instead, doors shut declaring their “fermato” - Closed - status. Fortunately my guide knew the owners of a small trattoria and convinced them to serve me anything they may have had left from the earlier lunch service. Vitelo Tonnato was all that was available. 

Had I known it was cold meat covered in a cold tuna sauce, I probably would have passed. But lucky for me my Italian friend, even in his fluent hand language, was unable to translate. Plus what he was trying to tell me made no sense, fish and cow. When I tasted it I knew the flavor, but in this totally different context, it took me a while to figure it out. He did give me one big hint, which was “Charlie.”  For the young readers, Charlie was the animated tuna fish in the Starkist T.V. commercials in the 70s. I had my “Ah-hah” moment shortly thereafter. When I found out how easy it was to make it became part of my summer recipes repertoire. My love affair with Italian food strengthened with every meal I ate on that trip to Italy and it was just the beginning.
I don’t eat veal anymore, but the sauce is equally fabulous on chicken, turkey or Round-eye roast.  This versatile sauce can be added to hot pasta and if you like to experiment you can embellish it with kalamata olives, red peppers or something else...Buon Appetito!

Chicken Tonnato
Serves 8 as an appetizer

For chicken:
3 boneless chicken breast filets
Water to poach chicken in
Salt and pepper
Cover the filets in water with a teaspoon of salt and pepper. Boil on medium high heat until the chicken is cooked through, about 15 minutes. Remove form the hot water and let them cool on a platter. Once cooled cut thin slices from the breasts and lay them onto a single layer on a large flat platter.

For Sauce:
1 8 oz can of tuna in olive oil
1/4 cup capers - save 1 tablespoon to garnish
3-4 anchovy filets
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1-2 lemons
1 - 2 tablespoons water

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the tuna, anchovies and capers until a coarse puree forms. Add the mayo and enough juice form the lemons for about 3 tablespoons. Save 1/2 of a lemon to thinly slice and decorate platter. Drizzle in a little bit of water until the puree is smooth and just thin enough to spread. About the consistency of marinara sauce. Pour the sauce over the chicken and decorate with capers and lemon slices. A glass of chilled Pinot Grigio is a great add-on.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Goodbye Holidays

The holidays are over and I won't have to listen to the whiners saying “I can’t believe Christmas is here so soon, it really crept up on me.”  I’m one of “those” who is always ready. The planning begins early in November with the arrival of the December issues of all my favorite food magazines; flipping relentlessly through the stylish pages looking for inspiration. I watch all my best friends on the Food Network shows and talk to anyone who is willing, about their traditions and menu planning; all in the hopes of making my Christmas dinner extra special. After I finalize the menu I do a test run of any new recipes and the week before the big day, my menu, any needed tools and all the recipes are locked and loaded in my menu planner.

The napkins are placed by the china with care in hopes that the dinner would soon be there...

In our family we have traditions for each day of the holidays, Christmas Eve is Mexican food; Tamales, my Mom's corn pudding, rice, beans and our Yankee introduction of a ham. Christmas dinner is all my choice. I’ve flirted with and occasionally given into nontraditional menus but I love coming back to the classics which to me means beef, potatoes, a nod to vegetables and winter greens and a custard dessert. I’m not English so I don’t know why I consider this my tradition, but beef just seems uniquely appropriate for the most special dinner I prepare during the year. This year the Duke of beef, Beef Wellington caught my attention. Nobody really knows if this dish was named after the English Duke of Wellington but he gets a lot of credit for it. The French call something wrapped in pastry “en croute”. I definitely think Wellington sounds better. My recipe this year came from Aleksandra Crapanzano. After I read her article about Beef Wellington in the Wall Street Journal I decided her recipe was the one I would use. She gave very compelling and technically good information as to why this recipe works so well and she was spot on. Crisp dough, medium rare beef tucked neatly inside after a decadent white truffle butter rub. Yum! Aleksandra's Beef Wellington

The Grand Duke...

The "Duke" - Center Stage

The potatoes were inspired by an episode of Barefoot Contessa in London. She found a shop at a Farmers Market that slices the tops of the potatoes without cutting through them. They are dressed with rosemary and olive oil then roasted. When they bake they open up, a little like like ruffles. They are super easy to prepare, adorable to look at and simply delicious.

Ruffled Potatoes

Dessert was a traditional berry trifle; Simple custard, light pound cake, homemade berry syrup and fresh berries which have co-mingled with raspberry liqueur. Of course, fresh whipped cream to finish it off. This is a free form, free spirited dessert which can be made with any variation of cake and custard and fruit. In fact it is perfect for varying with the seasons. I almost made this one with a gingerbread cake and maple custard but I couldn't resist the blackberries and raspberries.

Bring it on...
I will admit it was a lot of work. The days before were reserved for shopping, prepping and planning, and the day of the gathering I spent the entire day from 9 AM to 5 PM hands on - executing. Thank God for frozen puff pastry! I will say there were moments, many throughout the day, when I question why I do this. Why not make it simple and have everybody bring something? After all, the holiday is not about the food it’s about family and sharing…that doubting lasts about a minute or two. This meal is my gift to my family, it’s what I know how to do. The truth is I wouldn’t be happy doing it any other way. The other cooks in the family appreciate the labor of love that goes into every dish. The other non-cooks who cannot imagine how much work this is, enjoy eating and sharing stories around the table long after the meal is eaten and the dishes have been cleared and this has its own satisfaction.

In the end my hope is that my two girls will remember the time we spent in the kitchen prepping and cooking, enjoying the smells and witnessing the magic of all the dishes coming together. Maybe one day they will create their own kitchen magic and I will be there to share it with them and “yes”, selfishly, I hope when the time comes, it crosses their minds as they are laboring over the stove, that I did this for them for all those years, because that’s what family is about.

Christmas Dinner for 16

 Beef Wellington click here for recipe

Ruffled Baked Potatoes
Yukon Gold Potatoes, 2 small ones for each person
Try to find similar sized potatoes so they roast evenly.
Cut the bottom off of them so they sit firmly on the tray as they bake.
Very carefully slice through the tops of them without going all the way through. I also found that if you pull out a slice or two they will blossom more as they roast.
Brush good olive oil over them and season with salt and pepper and rosemary leaves.
Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour or until they are tender.

Roasted Winter Vegetables
This is a great easy way to get the best flavor out of vegetables. The sugars become caramelized and the vegetables taste sweet. Everyone I know that has ever tasted roasted brussel sprouts loves them. They have absolutely nothing in common with my childhood memories of the canned variety. On a large baking sheet, toss any combination of your favorite vegetables like brussel

Winter Greens Salad with honey balsamicAdapted from Tyler Florence
Use any combination of sturdy greens that you like.
Baby Spinach


  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon grainy mustard
  • 1 cup Extra-virgin olive oil
  • For garnish use your choice of pomegranate seeds, nuts, and Parmesan shavings, for garnish
  • Cook honey and balsamic together over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. Stir mustard into balsamic honey then whisk in olive oil until all ingredients are emulsified. Season greens with salt and pepper and any garnishes then drizzle dressing over it and toss.

Mixed Berry Trifle adapted from Barefoot Contessa


  • 1 Plain Pound Cake, recipe follows
  • 1 cup good raspberry jam
  • Framboise
  • 2 half-pints fresh raspberries
  • 1 pint fresh strawberries
  • Cognac Cream, recipe follows
  • 2 cups cold heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract


Cut the pound cake into 9 (3/4-inch) slices and spread each slice on 1 side with raspberry jam, using all the jam. Set aside.
Place a layer of cake, jam side up, in the bottom of a 2 1/2-to 3-quart glass serving bowl, cutting the pieces to fit. Sprinkle with Framboise. Top with a layer of raspberries and strawberries and Cognac Cream. Repeat the layers of cake sprinkled with Framboise, raspberries, strawberries and Cognac Cream, ending with a third layer of cake jam side down and raspberries and strawberries.
Whip the heavy cream in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. When it starts to thicken, add the sugar and vanilla and continue to whip until it forms stiff peaks. Decorate the trifle with whipped cream. The trifle can sit for a while at room temperature.

Plain Pound Cake:

  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups granulated sugar, divided
  • 4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour 2 (8 1/2 by 4 1/2 by 2 1/2-inch) loaf pans. Line the bottoms with parchment paper.
Cream the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. With the mixer on medium speed, beat in the eggs, 1 at a time.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, combine the buttermilk and vanilla. Add the flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour. Divide the batter evenly between the pans, smooth the tops, and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a cake tester comes out clean.
When the cakes are done, let them cool for 10 minutes. Take them out of the pans, place them on a baking rack and allow them to cool completely. Wrap well, and store in the refrigerator.

Cognac Cream:

  • 3 cups milk
  • 10 extra-large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 tablespoons sifted cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon Cognac
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
Heat the milk in a medium stainless-steel saucepan over medium heat and bring almost to a boil. Remove from the heat.
Beat the egg yolks and sugar on medium-high speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until pale and thick, about 5 minutes. With the mixer on low speed, sprinkle on the cornstarch. Beat on medium-low speed until combined, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula.
With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture. Pour the mixture back into the pan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, 5 to 7 minutes. (Pay attention because it will thicken and then quickly become scrambled eggs!)
Immediately, pour the mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl. Stir in the vanilla, Cognac, butter, and heavy cream. Place plastic wrap directly on the custard and refrigerate until cold.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pumpkin Pie et. al. and all...

The table is ready for family to arrive.
My All time favorite pie!

 I love everything about pumpkins; the crisp, cool time of year when they proliferate the soil, the size and various shapes of this glorious vegetable, the range of color tones that accompany so many different varieties. That’s before you even get to eating them. Once cooked the resulting taste when blended with sugar and spices is addictive. Cooked with savory and spicy introductions it is equally intriguing. Why is it then that I only make pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving? I can buy it canned all year long. In my own “test kitchen” I have proven that the canned variety is as good or better than pulling it out of the pumpkin and preparing it yourself. Granted when using canned there are no pumpkin seeds, but who really cares about the pumpkin seeds? Cleaning the seeds and roasting them is a tremendous amount of work which I personally believe is best left in the hands of pumpkin professionals. It amazes me how inexpensive pumpkins seeds are to buy when you consider how much work it is to get them cleaned and roasted.
Traditional Wine Tasting at San Antonio Winery on Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

Since I was a little girl, I was in charge of making the pumpkin pies. We always used the ubiquitous Libby’s Pumpkin pie recipe right off the can label. It is full proof and easy to follow even if you are 9 years old like I was when I made my first pie. Over the years as I got more experimental in the kitchen I couldn’t help but consider other recipe options. I have made several varieties, some very complex and full of ingredients and others as simple as two ingredients. Like many other experiments in life, I came back to tradition. This year my recipe is based on the "original" and falls somewhere in the middle of my previous experimental extremes. I have to say it was my favorite pumpkin pie ever. It was custardy and light yet rich enough to stand up to the buttery shortbread pie crust. One of the most magical moments of the filling is when the "milks" are added to the pumpkin. The deep stern orange color turns to a mellow sunset and the robust taste softens to a semi-sweet drinkable dessert. It reminds me of my own blended mix of friends and family which gets sweeter with every new member.

What about that crust? Years ago, I decided that I preferred a shortbread crust to the traditional pate brisee crust. It’s more substantial and holds up to the pumpkin. The filling and shortbread are each amazing on their own but when put together they are greater than the sum of their parts. My shortbread recipe is super easy. I make plenty of it so I can make little cookies to decorate the top of the pie after it cools. Originally my sister gave me this recipe for Lebanese walnut cookies rolled in powdered sugar. One day I left out the walnuts, rolled the dough and found them to be delicious as a buttery crisp shortbread. It turned out to be quite a versatile dough allowing itself to be rolled flat and cut into seasonal shapes or formed into a log, frozen and cut into perfect round cookies. (I also add ingredients to flavor the dough like lavender, cinnamon, lemon and thyme for a variety of shortbread cookies). With the cookie crust or without it, pumpkin symbolizes the Fall season and reminds me of the impending Winter-Holiday rush. I hope you enjoy this easy recipe and maybe even make it more than once a year.

Finished 12" pie and leaf shaped cookies

Easy Crust:
This can be doubled tripled and quadrupled without any sacrifice in texture. I tripled it for my big pie this year and used half the dough for the pie crust and the other half for cookies. The directions below are for the triple recipe.

Basic Recipe for 1 - 9" pie:
1 cup flour
1 stick melted butter
1/4 cup sugar

Tripled for a 12 inch pie dish plus cookies:
3 cups flour
3 sticks melted butter
1 1/4 c sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Add the melted butter to the flour and sugar blending with a fork until incorporated. It should have enough flour to hold together, but will also feel wetter than a normal pie pastry. Form dough into a large flat disk. If you made triple the recipe, divide into 3 disks.
Shortcut: For the pie dish, you can avoid rolling the dough altogether.  Place the dough, single recipe, into the pie plate and press it into shape making sure it is even along the bottom and sides of the pie dish.

For a rolled crust: Work the dough, adding flour until it can be rolled. It will be sticky so use two sheets of plastic wrap or wax paper when you roll it out. Gently roll it onto a generously floured surface between the plastic wrap/wax paper, on the top and bottom to avoid sticking. It should be as thin as a regular pie crust about 1/4” thick. It will break easily because it is a wet dough, but don't worry, you can repair it by simply pressing cracks together gently with your fingers. To place the dough in the pie dish, gently roll it around the rolling pin. Place it on one side of the pie plate and unroll it into place in the pie plate. If it breaks or cracks just patch it up. Prick the crust bottom with a fork for crispness. Wrap the remaining dough in plastic wrap and leave it at room temperature. If you refrigerate this dough it will be too hard to work with so bring it room temperature before using.

The filling. This is a variation of the traditional Libby's recipe. I will admit I can drink this filling on its own so before I mix in the eggs, I complete a serious tasting of the batter. Once the eggs are in please don’t taste it again. The eggs don’t add flavor so if you are happy with the seasoning before the eggs are added you will be happy after you add them. I substitute the sugar in the traditional recipe with a can of sweetened condensed milk (SCM), which also helps to solidify the batter. I use 2 eggs instead of 4 because using the SCM is like a binder similar to making a flan (that’s where I got he idea of the SCM and the evap. milk to solidify the custard).

Pumpkin Pie Filling for one *large 12" or two 9" pies:
1 29 oz can of natural, unsweetened pumpkin
Spices according to your taste; I use cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla
1 can of regular evaporated milk
1 can of sweetened condensed milk
2 eggs

Mix all the ingredients together, adding the eggs last. Taste batter before adding the eggs to make sure you are happy with the amount of spice you added. Whisk until smooth and pour into the crust. Make sure you fill it all they way to the top so that it doesn’t sink when cooled. Note: If I have any leftover filling, I add it custard dishes and bake it as a crust-less pumpkin custard.

*I use a huge 12 inch pie dish that came from a pie shop in Guadalupe, CA named Josie’s. Back in the day, you would buy one of her fabulous pies which came in the 12 inch glass pie dish, no disposable aluminum for Josie. You paid a deposit on it and when you returned for your next pie (we always did) you would return the old dish and get a new one with your pie purchase. I’ve had this particular pie dish for years. I can still see remnants of paint on the underside bearing her name and the address of the pie shop. Talk about a leaving an impression.

If you don't have a 12 inch pie dish use a 10" deep dish or 2 smaller pie tins.

Bake 1 large pie for about 60 minutes or until the middle of the pie is just wobbly. A toothpick, when inserted, should come out clean. It will continue to firm up as it cools. Two smaller pies will bake in 45 to 50 minutes.

While the pie bakes make the cookies to decorate the finished pie. Take the reserved dough and roll it out on a generously floured surface. It should be about 1/4” thick. I use small cookie press/cutters from William Sonoma. They are the shape of leaves and leave an impression of veins in the leaf shape. This would take so much time to do by hand and the result, at least by me, would not be nearly so lovely. This is a gadget I love and use every year. The press/cutters I use have a spring release. I release them right onto the baking sheet. They can bake in the same oven with the pumpkin pie if you don't have double ovens. Set your second timer for 9 minutes. Take them out when they are a light golden brown. Release them with a spatula from the tray and onto a cooling rack then put in the next batch if you have more. After the pie has come out of the oven and has cooled, place the cookies on top of the pie using your imagination. I like it covered with cookies because it’s like having a double crust. Cool the remaining cookies and dust with powdered sugar (pictured above). These are great with coffee. Enjoy!
Finished and decorated 9" Deep Dish pie

                                                  Kitchen helpers on clean-up duty