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Monday, August 1, 2022

NOT "Crackers over the Sink"

Inspired by red gooseberries

One of my friends had her 85th birthday recently, and I decided to make a special birthday dinner for the two of us. We enjoy meals on my front porch together, often remembering when there were four of us, not just two. (We share a lot of memories.) So why not an extra-special evening? And there were those gooseberries, after all, calling for something out of the ordinary.

So I put together a dinner plan starting with dessert, the most ambitious item on my menu:  gooseberry tart. Gooseberries have to be “topped and tailed” (stem and blossom ends removed), which is time-consuming but also a basically meditative task perfect for a summer afternoon. Instead of adding sugar to the berries, I mixed in about a third of a little jar of plum jam.

For the shell, I looked at half a dozen recipes and cobbled mine together from bits and pieces of all of them. I didn’t have almonds to grind for the pastry (that would be nice another time) but did have powdered sugar. And we might as well say here that this pastry is known as pâte sucrée. Chunks of butter worked with fingers into flour, sugar, and a pinch of salt, and I added a whole egg (though some people use only the yolk or no egg at all). While the sweet dough rested in the refrigerator, I worked outside in the yard for an hour, planting what will be a lovely daylily border, I’m sure, when the plants fill in. 

Later, while prebaking the tart shell I cooked a batch of rigatoni, and you could call what I made with it mac ‘n’ cheese, I suppose, at least a variation thereon: basic bechamel sauce but made with cream rather than milk and fresh nutmeg grated in; then, for the cheese, raclette. We are very fortunate to have fine raclette made right here on the peninsula at Leelanau Cheese, and I’d bought that at the farmers market on Friday, too. My cheesy pasta I baked in cute little ramekins, with extra raclette on top, but the cuteness was nothing compared to the taste. I warned my friend, “One bite, and you’ll feel a need to go to confession!” She laughed but agreed after she tasted.

We had the salad I invented a couple weeks ago and love for its cool, freshing summer tastes and textures: tomato (this one an heirloom variety from the farmers market), cucumber, blueberries, and pinenuts, with balsamic vinaigrette. We had poached (steamed, really) salmon and green beans with curried mayonnaise, with the rigatoni-raclette on the side. And for dessert we had gooseberry tart generously heaped with freshly whipped real cream.

(Cold, the next day)

Half-eaten serving!

Another friend told me the other day that someone had asked her, after her husband died, if she was fixing regular meals for herself or “eating crackers over the sink.” I certainly don’t fix meals like this when I’m alone (or even for company more than once a year, if that!), but once in a blue moon, for an old friend, it felt like the right time to pull out all the stops -- which meant I also did better than crackers over the sink the following day, when my next evening's dinner recapitulated everything but the whipped cream and so, finally, I got a few half-decent photos to illustrate this post. Because while I often photograph while I'm in the process of cooking and baking, I also often forget to photograph the finished dishes in all their glory. "Did you take a picture of that?" the Artist used to ask me. But now no one asks.


Friday, February 4, 2022

So Good, It Doesn't Need Meat


Getting Started

Curried cabbage soup, made with coconut milk, sounded good to me when the thermometer went down below freezing. As is true of so many wonderful winter dishes, the soup begins (on the left above) with onions, garlic, and fresh ginger. In a saucepan, sliced carrots simmered in chicken broth (I use Better Than Bouillon; see this post on cauliflower soup) until it was time to add a can of diced tomatoes and let those flavors simmer together. 

All together now!

Aromatics added to the broth-carrot-tomato mixture in the saucepan, it was time for spices -- curry and turmeric. More simmering.... Stir in the coconut milk. And then, at last --.

Chopped cabbage will steam and simmer, blending into the base.

With the addition of cabbage, our soup is complete. How long you simmer it depends on how soft you like your cabbage and how hungry you are. 

Some recipes for curried cabbage soup call for chicken, but frankly, I don't see the point. This is such a flavorful soup that chicken would get lost in the crowd. And you can always ladle cooked-down, leftover soup over rice and serve it next to chicken, if you like, the next day.

Perfect soup!

Monday, December 27, 2021

Save Those Cookies!


Hard to believe I haven't posted anything here since April. Okay, maybe not so hard to believe. There were last weeks in the ghost town, travel back to Michigan, months of bookselling and mowing grass, then packing up to come back to the high desert. I haven't been filled with ambition since we got here, either, not for cooking or baking or much of anything but reading and walking with dogs.

I did, however, get it together to mix up a couple batches of cookies before Christmas and want to share a tip that others might find helpful. The first batch of mincemeat cookies I pulled from the oven were not, as it turned out, quite done. I went ahead with the rest, then turned the oven off, and put the not-quite-done cookies back on a cookie pan and in the oven. Remaining heat took care of the problem. In fact (and this might be going further than necessary), I didn't pull them out of the oven until the next morning, when they were crispy and delicious and not at all overdone. 

Mincemeat cookies have a yummy taste but are an easy drop cookie to make and don't need decorating to be festive. Sorry I did not take enough photos to document the problem and solution, but as you can see by the nearly empty bowl, everything worked out fine. This solution just might work with any kind of drop cookie. Let me know if you run into the problem with another kind of cookie and solve it with my fix.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Try It, You’ll Like It: My Nontraditional Madeleines


Only a small amount of chocolate needed

Friends were dubious. Their first response was that substituting orange zest for lemon sounded fine, but they drew back in horror at the idea of chocolate. Nevertheless, she (I) persisted. What is cooking and baking without experiment or risk? This is, after all, a pretty small risk in the larger scheme of life. 


So here are the ingredients and amounts I used, which you would be wise to double, since I had cut the original traditional recipe in half before trying it the first time and just stuck with that for my variation. See previous post (here) for details of original attempt at madeleines. 



1 cup sifted flour 

½ cup fine sugar


½ cup melted butter

2 eggs

½ tsp. vanilla

zest of one large orange

½ oz. baking chocolate



The small amount of chocolate doesn’t even have to be heated on the stove. When the butter is melted, just pull that little saucepan off the fire, add the chocolate, and stir. It will melt quickly.


You may be tempted to increase the amount of chocolate. Don’t. At least, that is, well, do what you want, but I recommend the small amount given here. You don’t want chocolate to overpower the orange flavor, nor do you really want a “chocolate cookie” result. Do you?


Sorry there is no photograph here of the results. I was making the chocolate-orange madeleines for a neighbor as a get-well gift and only kept four for us, which we ate immediately after dinner and before I could even think about grabbing my camera. We loved them. What more need I say? 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Sorry You Can't Eat Pictures!


Hot weather brings salads to the table.

Greens are growing to harvest size.

Love the earth tones in this mix of spices for pork loin dry rub!

Light, crispy after-dinner treats when it's too hot to bake cookies.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Madeleines: Who Says They’re “Tricky”?

The pan, or mold, is essential.


The essential baking pan with its shell-shaped creusees traveled with me from Michigan to Arizona in November, so there was no reason my first attempt had to wait until April. Was I intimidated because by the reputation of these iconic French dainties, famous not only for their origin but legendary for the literary role played by a madeleine dipped in tea by the narrator of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the taste of which brings back a rushing flood of childhood memories?


Not exactly a cookie, and not anything I would call a pastry, either, the darling little tea cake’s richness is belied by the simplicity of the ingredients. At least one online recipe source, however, referred to the making of madeleines as “tricky.” Luckily, I was spared that added anxiety, as I did not look online at recipes until after having done the deed – and only then to provide a link on Facebook for friends unfamiliar with the madeleine. My own preparatory research was faster and more direct: Prosper Montagne’s Larousse Gastronomique: The Encyclopedia of Food, Wine and Cookery

More than a cookbook, Larousse Gastronomique provides history of various foods and food-related items, all arranged in alphabetical order. Was the inventor of the madeleine Prince Tallyrand’s pastry-cook, or were they known earlier, first made in the town of Commercy? Certain it is that Commercy long guarded its “secret recipe” for madeleines, the specialty that put the town on the map of France, and Montagne gives two recipes, that for a madeleine de Commercy and another for a madeleine ordinaire. You might say I used both, because what I did was to cut in half the proportions given for the ordinary madeleine and add the lemon zest from the Commercy version.



And so, to ½ cup of sugar, 1 cup of sifted flour, a pinch of salt, two eggs, and ½ teaspoon of vanilla (amount not specified, but that’s what I used) I added ½ cup melted butter and the zest of one lemon. (Use your own judgment, but I let the butter cool slightly rather than pour it directly into the flour and egg mixture as soon as it was melted, not wanting to have a bowl of floury scrambled eggs on my hands.) Tip: If you find yourself in someone else’s kitchen and don’t have a flour sifter, spoon the flour into a fine-mesh strainer and jiggle it through by hand. It works just fine.

substitute sifter

smooth batter


The resulting smooth batter is then spooned into buttered and floured molds and popped into the oven at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes. I let them cool before popping them out of the pan. Perfect!



Powdered sugar can be sieved over the warm tea cakes before serving, but I chose not to gild the lilies this time around. I may do so another time. And here’s a possibility from the baker who warned of potential failure: Carefully bring the butter past simply melted all the way to browned, and your finished tea cakes will be darker in color and perhaps with a somewhat nutty flavor. Try it and let me know. You do have to watch the butter every second to ensure it does not go past browned to burnt.


Actually, what I have in mind to try sometime is orange instead of lemon zest and a small amount of dark chocolate (!) melted with the butter. Does that sound like heresy? What would Proust say? It would certainly not be a classic madeleine, but something tells me it might be delicious. The "ordinary" ones certainly are. 

P.S. We all have our "madeleine moments." Here's one I wrote about on an earlier occasion.

P.P.S. Here is the subsequent chocolate story.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Why Bother With Cookbooks?

Not a pepper, after all! See postscript.

 Some people don’t. Don't bother with cookbooks, that is. Isn’t everything on the Internet, and aren’t all the recipes your heart could ever desire a couple taps away on your phone?


No, not everything is online -- someone had to upload it, or it isn’t there – but yes, there is probably more at your fingertips than you’ll ever look at, let alone use, which brings us back to my original question, and if you’ve already decided to “bother” with cookbooks no longer, I’m probably not going to convince you otherwise. Don’t they take up precious space that could better be used for cookware? Aren’t they really just – clutter? Since I grew up in a family of readers (as well as a family of letter-writers, but that’s another story), as long as I live I will never see books as clutter. 


(When in my early teens I baby-sat for neighbors, the most challenging job was in a house that contained no books. Not a one. There was a TV Guide and a Victoria’s Secret catalog. That was it. On that job, I occasionally did homework but basically watched a lot of television, clear through to the channel sign-off signal -- something that no longer exists. But the young couple, parents of a madcap little Dennis the Menace, stayed out late and they paid well.)


So what I’m getting at, in my usual roundabout way, is that cookbooks for me are books first, recipe collections second. I like it best when they either have photographs or give me paragraphs – preferably pages! – of thoughtful prose, and if the author offers me both, that is a dream book. 

The first recipe in Rachel Khoo’s The Little Paris Kitchen (and how could I possibly resist a book with that title? I ask you!) is for a salad of fresh figs and chicken livers. Rather than diving directly into instruction or a list of ingredients, Rachel muses as follows: 


When figs appear at my local market (the best figs are available from July to September in France), I just have to buy them. Sweet, sticky, and juicy, they often don’t even make it back to my kitchen – I usually gobble them all up on my way home – but if there are a few remaining, they make a delicious addition to a salad. - Rachel Khoo


Oh, be still, my heart! Fresh figs! Growing up in the Midwest, I knew only dried figs and the cookies known as fig bars. When our hostess in the Ardèche offered me a fresh fig right off her tree and I bit into it, I burst into tears! Looking at the photograph of Khoo’s salad, I taste the sweetness and feel the graininess of the seeds in the fruit pulp, and I would give anything for a fresh fig!


Alice Waters, besides being the sister of a good friend, inspires me. Alice does not preach precision. She gives a basic idea and then encourages her cookbook readers to make substitutions and try variations. She writes: 


Flexibility is an essential component of good cooking. You should never feel locked in to a recipe or a menu unless it involves a basic principle regarding procedure or technique such as those involved in breadmaking and pastry. I don’t ever want to write anything in this book that is so precise that the reader must invoke great powers of concentration on every last detail…. 


…When you are faced with the absence of a certain ingredient, don’t panic; formulate your own acceptable or inspired replacement….

- Alice Waters


Isn’t that dear of her? To give us hope that our substitutions may be “inspired”? Oh, thank you, thank you, Alice!


It's always good to have one or two basic cookbooks on hand, and the basic cookbook I have here in Arizona is Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. (Back in Michigan I have three or four different basic books, one of them a reprint of the one I grew up using in my mother’s kitchen.) It seems I’m always looking up proportions for simple things like noodles or muffins or a conversion chart for measurements. Things like that. 

I must say, however, that Joy let me down recently when Rombauer wrote (and I believed) that “stone-cold” pans could be used for popovers. Not true! I have a whole story to share about popover failure, but that must wait for another day….

Here in our winter ghost town, I have only one shelf for cookbooks, not a whole bookcase as I have back in Michigan, so there are days when an addition to the shelf prompts me to consider de-acquisition of something else. Tough choices! 

In the Southwest, a Mexican cookbook is a must, isn’t it? So I was happy to add this one to my shelf. But will it surprise you when I say that Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant Flavors of a World-Class Cuisine is more intimidating to me than any of my French cookbooks? Basically, it’s the peppers. There are so many of them, and their names change when they are dried (as grape becomes raisin, poblano becomes ancho), and the true Mexican cook is not only a master of capsicum but of so much more!


The other day, though, at last I roasted a pepper over a gas flame on the stove, something I’ve been intending to try for years and finally got my courage up to attempt. Blistered the skin, let the pepper cool, scraped off the skin, scraped out the seeds, and chopped up that pepper to add to chopped fresh tomato, white tomato, onion (Mexican cooks prefer the white, I learned from Bayless), and garlic. The pepper I roasted (what was its name???) was not particularly hot, so I did add a few drops of hot sauce. And my salsa was good! So I made a start, at least. Baby steps….

Then, last year I found and bought a German clay cooker, and this year I found the cookbook to go with it! Serendipity! That should help me get back to experimenting with “ancient pot” cooking, because my clay cooker has been feeling rather neglected, I know. A whole book, not just one online recipe at a time.

And just on the heels of a gout attack in our household (I was not the victim), which led me to think we should eat less red meat and more chicken, a visit to the FOL bookstore over in Pearce/Sunsites turned up this book: 

What could be more timely or more inspiring? I am excited already, having only looked through a dozen pages! 


Inspiration. Encouragement. Memories. Pleasure. That’s what I find in cookbooks. I can’t imagine my life without them.

IMPORTANT POSTSCRIPT! My sister reminds me that the catalog at the bookless household was Frederick’s of Hollywood. Victoria’s Secret did not yet exist. (That shows our age, doesn't it?) Then, a very savvy foodie friend set me straight about chiles and peppers: they are not the same genus! See an explanation here

So much to learn — at least I had that right!