Brownies for my Grandpa

Almost two weeks ago, my grandpa died. I’ve been debating writing about this for a lot of reasons, but if this blog is about anything other than food, it’s about family, and he was an important part of mine. It would be selfish of me not to share what I can of him with the world.

My grandparents

There are many, many things that made my grandpa a great man, but they can all be distilled down to one undeniable truth–he loved people, especially his family, and people loved him. Sometimes–well, let’s be honest, often–that love, and his sense of humor, was kind of goofy, a little teasing or sarcastic, possibly, occasionally crude (though never crass or dirty; he (almost) never swore), but always unique to him–even if the joke itself wasn’t unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if my grandma’s (lovingly) rolled her eyes at the same joke for the entire 63 years they were married.

Three weeks before he passed away was Paczki Day, Fat Tuesday. I hadn’t planned on making any, or shipping them overnight to Cleveland where there’s no shortage of good paczki to be had. Still I found myself frying up two dozen golden little donuts filled with my homemade jam that Sunday night, tucking them safely into boxes for their journey. My grandma brought one to my grandpa in the hospital, leaving instructions with his nurses to microwave it a little; paczki are better warm. She told me later that he called her that night to tell her to thank me and that it was delicious.

60th wedding anniversary

I was lucky enough to see him the next weekend and despite how simply not like my grandfather he looked–there’s something that twists your heart and makes you feel so old when you realize the people you always, always knew to be big and tall are not so much anymore–the eye-roll-inducing humor and good spirit remained, for which I could not be more grateful. We chatted for a bit and I asked again if he liked the paczki and he said he did, joking he gained four pounds just from one. I reminded him I could make and ship him anything he wanted, cookies, or maybe brownies. “Ooh, brownies…” My grandpa, as my mom later reminded me, loved chocolate.

Two weeks later, as I prepared for another trip to Cleveland, this time to be with my family and celebrate my grandfather’s life, his “Ooh, brownies” kept ringing in my ears. And so, again, I found myself in the kitchen mixing and baking when I should have been packing and sleeping. Somehow the brownies were more important than anything else at that moment. There’s comfort in sharing food with loved ones, especially during a hard time, but making and bringing those brownies with me was purely selfish–it was the last thing my grandpa asked me for and what kind of granddaughter with a food blog and a penchant for cooking for an army would I be if I didn’t deliver?

Nothing says love like fattening up your family

There isn’t enough time or space or simply the words to share my memories of him, but it’s the little things I keep thinking about and telling anyone who will listen. How he made me his specialty of bacon scrambled into eggs when I had chicken pox as a kid. How we’d always go out for Italian food when he and my grandma were in town and he’d always joke with the waiter about how he was on a fixed income before placing his usual order of veal parmesan and a glass of “white zin.” His voice in the back of my mind as my car crapped out the week he died: “You should’ve bought a GM. When’s the last time you got the oil changed? And maybe take it to the car wash once in a while.” The pride in his voice echoing through the hall as I walked across the stage to get my Master’s degree: “You go, girl!!”

My graduation

My sisters and I are so lucky, not only to have had him as an incredible grandfather and for the limitless love he gave us, but for how we’ve benefited from how he and my grandma raised their first born, my mom. My aunt said in her eulogy that my grandpa raised his daughters to be independent (and, among other essential life skills, to know the power of duct tape; how to use a lawnmower and a snow blower; and to appreciate a good power tool). Through my mom, how she’s lived her life, made her own way, my grandpa’s lesson came to me. I know he was so proud of her just as he was proud of me. And I could not be prouder to be his granddaughter.

Mom and Grandpa, dancing
Mom and Grandpa, dancing. He loved to dance.

Thanks, Grandpa. I made you some brownies.

Brownies with Walnuts
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Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate

Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.

Should I? Yep.

How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).

Circle of pecan bars

Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.

Crust is almost ready Whisking in the butter Three components

By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.

I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).

Pecan bars Soup and Bread at the Hideout Nothing like a bowl of soup on a snowy night

The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.”  A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.

If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!

Snowy day, great for baking
What’s better than soup, bread, and pecan bars on a day that looks like this?

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Almost Thanksgiving!

Just over a week to Thanksgiving! It’s tied with the 4th of July as my favorite food/friends/family holiday. While I don’t have any turkey (or mashed potato or stuffing) recipes to suggest for anyone’s feast, I thought it would be fun to see what I could contribute to the Thanksgiving table.

Let’s start with dessert (as all meals should, really). Might I suggest something slightly different along side the apple and pumpkin pie? How about a plum pie spiced with orange, brandy, ginger, cinnamon and a crunchy, crumbly, nutty topping? Yum.

Plum crumble pie

Cranberries? I have two options, both of which can be done in advance. Option one is equally good accompanying a perfect slice of turkey as it is stirred into a bowl of hot oatmeal on a cold morning–a fantastic conserve of cranberries and oranges, nuts and apricots. You can water-bath process it if you feel like it, or just store in the fridge.


Option two is for the slightly more adventurous: pickled spiced cranberries. The berries themselves are delicious, sweet and tart and an excellent complement to the richness of a Thanksgiving meal, but the syrup is equally amazing mixed with some seltzer (…and possibly a little vodka or gin).

Pickled cranberries

Need something to nibble on with said drink? These spiced candied nuts work nicely and conveniently are also delicious (with the pickled cranberries) on a post-Thanksgiving salad with leftover sweet potatoes and goat cheese.

Candied spiced walnuts

And finally, since I feel no meal is complete without bread in some way, shape, or form, cornmeal biscuits with green onion and black pepper. If these are a bit too casual for your dinner table, they do make for a particularly delicious turkey sandwich.

Flaky biscuits, topped with salt and pepper

What are you planning for your Thanksgiving meal (or the leftovers, which are obviously the second best part of the holiday)?


Sweet as honey

Forget Christmas and my birthday and Thanksgiving and every other holiday that comes around once a year. My favorite day? Opening day of the outdoor farmers markets in Chicago.

Gooey strings of sugar, carmelized edgesStacks of bars

When my two favorite markets open in a few weeks, I know I won’t find the near-overwhelming cacophony of colors and textures and tastes that come in July and continue through October. That’s ok. For now I’ll be happy to ease into spring with little shoots of green, a color it feels like I haven’t really seen in months.

But green things aren’t what I’m talking about today. Among all the fruits and vegetables and amazingly colorful array of eggs is one of my all-time favorite stands even during the winter market–the honey guy. I can, and have, spent half an hour at his stand sampling and chatting with the quiet, unassuming owner about which flavors are best for what, tasting the amazingly apparent differences between varieties. I’ll watch him wave the bees away from his samples as he talks to other customers and I try to decide between tupelo, buckwheat, cranberry blossom, or (my favorite, as in I have a 5 pound bottle of it in my cupboard) basswood-linden.

Butter, almond meal, flour, sugar
Eggs, homemade vanilla from a recent swap
Browned base

There are a million and one ways to use honey of course; my favorites are drizzled over really good yogurt with the freshest mid-summer fruit or on a warm, buttered biscuit. For the stronger, almost molasses-like honeys (buckwheat, chestnut, etc.), it’s a bit more of a challenge. Like really good chocolate, the sweetness has an underlying bitterness that makes it more interesting, but it can overwhelm in the same applications as the lighter honeys. I’ve been kind of stumped as to a good use. Then, I found these.

Sliced almonds
Essentials for the topping
Butter squares

I don’t know how it’s taken me so long to get on the bandwagon of David Lebovitz fans; maybe because Paris has never been at the top of my list of dream destinations (yes, I’m aware I’m insane). But his recipes hit on a lot of the things I love–simple and classic and delicious–and his writing is funny and so unpretentious. Plus, at least the past few months, he seems to post the exact thing I’m looking for before I even know I need it.

Such was the case in March with these gallette des rois I made in miniature for that month’s Chicago Food Swap. It happened again this month with his recipe for almond honey bars, the perfect use for the half bottle of buckwheat honey sitting in my cupboard that was destined for these (they also made for a big hit at this month’s swap).

Swirling butter, honey, sugar
Coating the almonds

The bars are a crisp, crumbly, almond-y shortbread topped with a butter/almond/orange/honey brittle that’s a perfect showcase for a great, strong honey. The funny thing is that I actually forgot the sugar the first time I made them and didn’t even realize it until I made a second batch. They’re amazingly good either way: with the sugar, the topping layer is thicker, stickier, sweeter (obviously); without the sugar, the honey bakes more fully into the shortbread and the bitterness comes through more with more crunch from the sliced almonds. The orange and almond compliment the honey perfectly in both versions.

Bits and piecesOne giant bar

With less than two weeks to go until the 2014 markets move outdoors, I’m obviously looking forward to those first fresh, beautiful, green things. But I really hope my honey guy is back too.

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Good food doesn’t need a label

A lot of vegetarian food gets a bad rap, undeservedly so. I’ve had bad dishes with meat in them; I’ve had bad dishes with no meat. Meat rarely makes a dish good or bad simply by being there. I think the “bad” vegetarian food that people have, and which colors their perception, is just bad food, period. And good food, with meat or without, is just so, so good. (Fair warning, a little bit of a soapbox ahead. I won’t mind if you just skip to the delicious recipe at the end.)


The vast majority of the food I try to eat falls into the vegetarian category, particularly the whole food vegetarian category (i.e. vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, grains as close to their original form as possible). I’ll be honest that I’m not a fan of tofu unless it’s fried or in miso soup, I don’t like seitan, I’m on the border with tempeh (I don’t mind it, it but it doesn’t like me). I don’t think frozen fake meat that has as many not-whole ingredients as a chicken nugget are doing anyone any favors.

But set me down in front of a well-seasoned portabella mushroom just off the grill with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard, and cheese on a perfectly toasted bun, and watch it disappear as quickly as any beef burger. (P.S. I miss you summer, please come back so I can grill again.)

All ground up

I’m also not a fan of labeling “meatless” meals as such. It seems counter-intuitive to label them based on the thing that’s not there. You wouldn’t call a burger and fries a pasta-less meal, would you? Or a mid-summer salad of perfect tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce a grain-less meal. What sense does that make? As soon as you make the focus the thing that’s missing, you can’t focus on the delicious food that is actually in front of you.

A breakfast of fruit and yogurt is vegetarian, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is vegetarian, but it seems silly to label them that way, doesn’t it?

Ready for shaping

The thing I love about food, about cooking seasonally, about taking a pile of random things and turning them into a delicious dish, is that the final dish honors the flavors and textures of the ingredients. Meatless, meat-full, vegetarian, vegan, raw, gluten-free labels be damned–it’s not trying to be anything other than good food. That, to me, is cooking at its absolute best. (Ok, I’m off my soapbox now.)

Golden brown and delicious
Pita pocket-ed

I found this recipe forever ago, and only dug it up again recently. I don’t know why it fell out of my lunch and dinner rotation; it was one of my favorites for a long time. The cumin and coriander give it a sort-of middle eastern-y flavor similar to falafels. It’s easy to make a double batch, shape, and freeze for lunches at work or fast dinners on nights I really don’t feel like cooking.


Lentil Walnut Burgers
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Giving the gift of cookies

Fair warning–if I know you, you probably have a box of cookies heading your way right now (honestly, you may get a box even if I don’t know you). This past weekend was my annual Cookie Day, and as usual my apartment is absolutely overflowing with sweets and treats of all kinds (16 kinds, actually, all told). For the sake of brevity and my poor sleep-deprived eyes, I’ll keep this short and say how much I admire my family and family friends who can manage to pull off massive cookie-baking extravanganzas and keep their kitchens and sanity in any state of not-chaos. This is what I ended up making, along with recipe links where I could find them:

Boxed up

Pecan tassies
Pecan Tassies (from my Grandma Bello)
Coffee toffee shortbread
Coffee Toffee Shortbread
Biscotti three ways
Anise-Almond Biscotti, Anise Biscotti (from my Grandma Bello), and Chocolate-Orange-Almond Biscotti (adapted from David Lebovitz)
Fig-date swirls
Fig-Date Swirls (from Lottie and Doof)
Rye pretzels
Rye Pretzels (from Smitten Kitchen) *My favorite new cookie recipe. Not too sweet, nice and crispy, and the rye flour adds a nice nutty flavor without the nuts.
Spice cookeis
Spice Cookies (from The Wednesday Chef) *This is the latest in a long line of attempts to find the perfect spice cookie. I rolled my eyes when the recipe called for “1/2 a free-range egg,” instructed that the dough be rolled into “perfect” balls, and called for candied orange peel to top (I left it out as I couldn’t find it at any store and figured making my own toffee was quite enough this season) but they sounded delicious. They were good, but still not what I’m looking for. The search continues…
Suprise Insides
Surprise Insides (from my mom)
The surprise
The surprise
Raspberry almond meringues
Raspberry-Almond Meringue Bars (from my mom)
Thumbprints (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) with homemade blueberry-orange jam
Peanut butter blossoms
Peanut Butter Blossoms (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, with some tweaks from my dad)
Chocolate Snowcaps (from my mom)
Chocolate crinkles
Chocolate Crinkles (from my mom)

And finally, not pictured, nut roll and poppyseed roll (from my Grandma Connie).

This is the first year I haven’t made rugelach, marshmallows, or hot chocolate mix. I kind of missed all three at the end of the day, but I was happy I discovered the new rye cookies, which I think will be added to my list of staples (I don’t think I’ll do them as pretzel shapes next year though). And of course I can’t forget biggest thanks to my most reliable cookie helper for the past 6 (??!! really??!!) years! Thank you as always Andrea for covering yourself in powdered sugar so I don’t have to.

With that, I’m signing off until after the New Year. I hope you all have wonderful, relaxing fabulous holiday(s) with all your loved ones! (And if anyone has a favorite spice cookie I should try next year, please share!)

Savoring the season

Out of any season, I love, love, love how fall smells the most. I love the cinnamon and warm baking apples, roasting nuts, crisp, bright citrus mingled with cloves, the smokey burning leaves. They are some of the most comforting scents, cozy and homey, and they permeate everything like the best aromatherapy you can imagine.

The two preserves I made recently represent two of the most popular profiles this time of year–warm and spiced, and tart and citrus-y–but each offers a slight twist on the traditional.

How could these flavors possibly be wrong?
Warm and spiced (and spiked with wine)?
Fall flavors, take 2
Or tart and citrus-y?

The first is a variation on a riff of a traditional Jewish Passover dish called charoset or charoses, normally an uncooked mixture of apples, honey, nuts, cinnamon, and sweet red wine. Conveniently this also happens to taste exactly like all the delicious, warm, spiced flavors of fall, no religious affiliation needed.

Wine-y apples Best applesauce ever? PossiblyFinishing touches

I’ve spread this on a piece of whole grain bread  instead of jam and stirred it into oatmeal, and imagine a beautiful jar and a bottle of wine would not be unwelcome as a hostess gift (do people still give those?).

On the other end of the spectrum of fall flavors, this cranberry conserve tastes like all the crispness of fall contained in a little jar (given my love of all things tart and sour, say cherries, rhubarb, and plums, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that cranberries are also a favorite).

Simmering orange segments Cranberry, orange, and apricot Boiling

In this conserve, oranges are used whole–that is, skin and all–for a slightly bitter note under the sweet and sour of simmered cranberries and a bit of texture with the crunch of nuts (any you like–walnuts, almonds, or pecans would be traditional, but pistachios would be colorful and tasty as well). It’s amazing as an accompaniment to any upcoming turkey dinners you might have planned, but also delicious on a cream scone or warmed slightly and spread on a ham sandwich.

Jammy Cranberries, conserved

Either of these can be canned, but they can also easily be refrigerated if you aren’t comfortable with the process, or just don’t want to spend the time. It is nice to pop open a jar of fall flavors come mid-January though!

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Cure for the crazies

Sometimes I’m a little crazy. Five people coming to stay for three days in my two-bedroom apartment? Perfect time to  start a dozen different projects that have been on my list for a year into the few free hours I can eke out after work! And hey, can’t have my guests go hungry, best make granola, a batch of carrot cupcakes, blackstrap molasses ice cream with pecan praline (um, yum), and…well, at least I had one easy thing on my list.

Ready for dipping!

Everyone needs a go-to dish for when you’re slightly crazed–last minute guests, forgotten party you promised a dish for, or just bordering on hangry (my new favorite word=hungry+angry. Because who hasn’t been there?). For me, this is that dish.

More than a dip, kind of a spread, it’s all delicious however you use it. Plus–and this is key–it takes all of 30 seconds to make and can be made with pretty standard cupboard fare. Dump everything in the food processor, turn it on, scoop it into a pretty bowl (or don’t, I know how demanding the hangry can be), devour. Pita chips, crackers, vegetables, spread on a sandwich instead of hummus…all are perfectly valid and perfectly delicious options.

Ready to goDumb and blendWhirrrr

There is one thing that makes this dip extra special–namely, pomegranate molasses. If you’ve never tried–or heard of– it, it’s a great little secret ingredient in everything from salad dressings to a marinade for grilling meat or vegetables, or even drizzled over strawberries. Tangy and tart, it provides a depth to the dip that you can’t quite put your finger on. (Ok, maybe pomegranate molasses isn’t “standard” cupboard fare, but it should be! And it actually lasts a long time in the fridge, so if you can find some it’s worth a purchase. Otherwise you can easily cook down pomegranate juice with some sugar and lemon juice until it’s nice and syrupy–look, Alton Brown even has a recipe!)

In any case, thank god for easy recipes in between frantic project-doing, apartment-cleaning, cupcake-baking, and general chicken-sans-head-running. Molasses is blitzed together with toasty cumin and spicy cayenne, walnuts, roasted sweet peppers, olive oil, and bread crumbs. Done. If nothing else for my guests, I knew this would go over well.

So I may make myself crazy, but at least I make some damn good dip too.

Just a little chunky

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Grown-up tastes

Every year around this time, it would come in the mail. My dad would grab it from the box on his way in the house, a non-descript brown paper package, but I knew what was hiding inside by the unmistakeable handwriting on the outside, just waiting to be uncovered.

Anise Almond Biscotti

My sisters and I would tear open the wrapping to find a festive holiday tin. We’d pop open the lid and there, wrapped in layers of wax paper, still cold from their journey from Ohio to New York, were my grandma’s annual Christmas cookies.

My favorites then were a three-way tie between pecan tassies, with their layer of crunchy sugar hiding nutty, molasses-y insides; buckeyes, an Ohio specialty of a ball of peanut butter partially dipped in chocolate to resemble its namesake; and these chocolate cookies with a maraschino cherry hidden under a coating of chocolate frosting. There were other choices in the tin too, of course: soft, cakey cookies topped with sugar glaze and multi-colored sprinkles, peanut butter blossoms, maybe some pizzelles if they managed to survive the trecherous journey intact. And of course no gift of cookies from an Italian grandmother–from my Italian grandmother–would be complete without biscotti.

Anise Almond Biscotti

I never got the appeal of biscotti then. They weren’t really sweet; you risked cracking a tooth if you didn’t eat them patiently, waiting for them to soften in your mouth or a cup of coffee; they tasted…different. Anise, as I learned, an acquired taste and one not often acquired by kids who were more interested in chocolate or sugar frostings. They certainly didn’t look like a kid’s cookie–craggy oblong slices, broken up only by small flecks of aniseed, austere in the grand scheme of holiday cookies.

Anise Almond Biscotti

But my dad loved them. He would eat them on Sunday mornings with his once-weekly cup of coffee while my sisters and I made quick work of the rest of the treats. I would munch on one or two as long as I could dip them in hot chocolate, but only if all my other favorites were gone.

Anise Almond Biscotti

Since then, my tastes have grown up. Biscotti have become one of my favorite cookies for the holidays, one of the few that end up in my own private cookie stash once the rest have been gifted away. As with my issues with mass-produced muffins, these are not the biscotti you find at most coffee shops.

The licorice flavor of anise is the highlight, they’re just sweet enough for my tastes, and, while you won’t risk cracking a tooth like really traditional biscotti, they definitely have a crunch (and I personally like them best after a few days to really dry out). This time of year, they’re my favorite Sunday morning treat with a strong cup of tea–or, even better, an afternoon treat with a cup of hot mulled wine while I’m baking up more holiday goodies.

Anise Almond Biscotti Continue reading

Greens ‘n things

So I hear the east coast is having some weather (much weather! 30 Rock fans? Shall we conversation? No?) Has anyone else heard this? Rain and wind, I think they said. Maybe the news will spend a minute discussing it or I’ll see if I can find it mentioned on the Internets somewhere, we’ll see.

Sarcasm aside, I hope all resolves itself soon, bad weather sucks and is making me dread thinking about the other four-letter “s” word that’s coming sooner than I’d like. But in the meantime, I’m making salad with the last of the really beautiful lettuce I picked up over the weekend.

Greens and purples

Lettuce seems like such an insignificant thing to get excited about. It’s usually relegated to the ubiquitous side salad, pale green and lacking flavor, or added as an afterthought to a burger just to get peeled off after it’s warm and soggy. What a sin. Continue reading