31 December 2006

Tourte Provençale

To see the old year out, I wanted to make something truly French.

That’s not entirely true: I wanted to use up stuff in my freezer, like zucchini, eggplant and tomato paste. I save everything, every little scrap, of summer’s bounty. Little bits of tomato, pepper, or eggplant usually make their way into soup, ratatouille or pizza — eventually.

I took stock of my refrigerator and cupboards and decided upon my own version of a rustic tourte that would use up a rather oldish hunk of Gruyere and some heavy cream left over from holiday truffle making.

This dish was inspired by a recipe from a remainder-table cookbook, “Le Cordon Bleu Home Collection: Regional French.”

Tourte Provençale

  • 1 tube refrigerator puff-pastry or croissant dough
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-2 small yellow onions
  • Two medium or four small zucchini, cubed
  • 1 medium eggplant, cubed
  • 2-3 large shallots
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • 2-3 ripe tomatoes, seeded and cubed
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 2 teaspoons herbs de Provence
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup Gruyere cheese
  • 1/8-teaspoon nutmeg
  • Dash fleur de sel (from the Camargue, if you have some)
  • Dash pepper

Preparing the vegetables: Wash, chop and peel the zucchini and eggplant and sprinkle with salt to remove the water. Set them on a paper towel or in a colander. I usually use a mix of sell de fleur and herbs de Provençe for this. If you do, reduce the amount of herbes and salt you add later, or rinse and allow the vegetables to dry again. I prefer the latter method.

Making the crust: Roll out the dough on a floured surface. Try to get it thin enough for a top and bottom and side crust. I used a medium-sized spring form pan for this. I cut a circle for the bottom, and strips for the sides, patting them both into the greased and floured pan. I had enough crust to fit around the sides of the “top” — with a hole in the center of the circle to let the steam out. This is the way it should be, as when the tourte is done, you will flip it over as you remove it from the pan so what is the top becomes the bottom.

Once the “bottom” and side crusts were patted into the pan, I wrapped the pan in wax paper and popped it in the refrigerator.

Preparing the filling: Next, brown the chopped onion in one teaspoon olive oil for 2-3 minutes, adding the other vegetables, the shallot and the rest of the olive oil. Next add the tomato paste and garlic and finally the herbs. Season, set aside and allow to cool.

Whip cream and two eggs in a small bowl. Add cheese and the nutmeg. Blend this with the cooled vegetable mixture.

Putting it all together: Remove pan with crust from the refrigerator and pour in the vegetable, cream, egg and cheese mix. Pat into the pan with a spatula until it is tightly packed. There should be enough filling to meet the strips along the sides of the pan Return the spring form pan and its contents (it’s best to cover it) into the refrigerator for about 30 minutes while you pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees.

Remove the pan from the refrigerator. Now it’s time to add what will become the bottom crust to the tourte. If you have enough dough left, roll a thin circle that will fit over the top of the tourte. The circle should be slightly larger than the tourte so you can tuck the sides under slightly.

Or you can simply fit the dough along the sides of the top of the pan, leaving an area in the center for the steam to escape.

Bake the tourte for 15 minutes at 375, then lower the heat to 350 degrees and bake it for about another 30 minutes, until the crust has turned golden brown.

Allow the tourte to cool for 15-20 minutes, then remove the pan, flipping the tourte over so that the bottom is now the top crust. Spray it with egg wash, if you like. I use the spray can stuff you find in the baking section of the supermarket.

I liked it. My husband did not. We’ll see what everyone else thinks.

Note: I used vegetables that had been in the freezer. Next time I will use fresh. They were a bit rubbery.

I’m going to try an easier version that is more of a savory cheesecake one of these days.

30 December 2006

Substituting Ingredients

How often do you run across a recipe to find you have all but one ingredient on hand?

Fairly often, judging all the blog posts I've read. Many times, we can leave the ingredient out or find an easy substitute that won't harm the finished product.

But when I'm stumped — which is more often than I usually admit — I turn to "Substituting Ingredients: An A to Z Kitchen Reference."

This book tells you, in alphabetical order, what do do when a recipe calls for such exotics as amaranth, fuzzy melon, mizuna, tamarind and rapini — none of which are basic, everyday Wisconsin ingredients.

The book also offers recipes for Angostura bitters, creme fraiche, herbes de Provençe and pickling spice.

At the end, there is a section on household formulas, like chrome and copper cleanser, drain opener and carpet deoderizer.

Looking for mascarpone cheese in your cheese compartment? Whip cream cheese with butter.

Does a recipe call for star anise or anise seed? Fennel is the perfect stand in.

Fresh out of winter savory? Use pepper.

Out of paprika? Blend tumeric with cayenne pepper.

A lot of the substitutions are common sense. But I found this book to be quite informative. There are many sites online where you can also find basic ingredient substitutes, but this little guide is very thorough.

27 December 2006

Shrimp de Jonghe for Two

We’re tired of turkey. We’re tired of dressing. Seafood is on sale at local supermarkets. What to make? Shrimp de Jonghe!

Normally, this is something we only eat when we eat out. On our anniversary, maybe.

Our anniversary is tomorrow and we are eating out. But why wait?

Shrimp de Jonghe for Two

  • One pound raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 ½ teaspoons tarragon
  • 1 ½ teaspoons parsley
  • ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 shallots, minced
  • 1 ½ teaspoons minced onion
  • ¾ stick butter, softened
  • ½ cup dried Italian-style bread crumbs
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • pinch sel de fleur

Preheat oven to 350.

Cook shrimp in boiling salted water for about 1-2 minutes. Drain and plunge into ice water to halt further cooking.

Make a paste using about 1/2 stick butter and herbs, onions, garlic, shallots and 1/4 cup bread crumbs.

Arrange shrimp in shallow pans. Do not overlap. Coat tops of shrimp with mixture.

Melt remaining butter and breadcrumbs, adding salt and pepper. Drizzle over the shrimp.

Bake for 15 minutes on a rack placed in the upper third of the oven. After 15 minutes, turn off oven and turn on the broiler so the shrimp turns golden brown.

I served with noodles for my husband and rice pilaf for me.

Note: I scrimped on the butter and salt in what is probably a fruitless attempt to make this a healthier dish. Ah, well it's the holiday season.

The recipe is adapted from one found on Epicurious.

26 December 2006

A Cranberry-Orange Drink for the Holidays

Some drinks just taste like Christmas - or Valentine's Day. A Brandy Old Fashioned Sweet — popular here in Wisconsin — is one of them.

"The Faraway" from Christine Cooks is another.

Made with orange juice, cranberry juice, vodka and lime, it sounded so good, I had a difficult time waiting until Christmas Eve to make it. I made a pitcher that night and another on Christmas Day. I added a pinch of sugar and it was sublime. We finished off a nearly empty bottle of Absolut in the process.

You can read about the drink's provenance and the measures of ingredients at Christine's blog.

I highly recommend it.

Eggnog Tea Bread with Cranberries and Raisins

At 9:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve I realized we had nothing for breakfast. I had been too busy preparing low-carb finger foods and getting ready for Christmas dinner to even think about some sort of festive breakfast idea.

My father always had stollen or some sort of coffee cake on hand for Christmas breakfast. He understood the connection between food and celebration, and tried to make sure we had celebratory foods on hand for holidays.

We had plenty of eggnog, purchased with plans to make eggnog biscotti. Biscotti for breakfast? I think not. Too decadent. I took stock of what I else I had on hand and came up with this recipe from my "recipes to try some day" folder.

Eggnog Tea Bread with Cranberries and Golden Raisins

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar or fructose
  • 1 cup eggnog
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 2 teaspoons French vanilla or rum extract
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries and golden raisins

Preheat oven to 350° F. Grease and flour three small bread pans.

Beat eggs in a large bowl, adding sugar, eggnog, butter, and extracts. In a separate bowl, blend flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Blend into eggnog mixture. Add dried fruit and stir enough to blend the batter.

Bake 40 minutes. Once the bread has cooled, wrap it and store it in the refrigerator. It will taste even better the day after it is baked.

The bread was a big hit, even with my husband who is not a fan of tea breads. I am going to try it again, this time with some leftover cranberry-orange relish, which will make for a very moist loaf.

You can spiff up this bread a bit and serve it for an evening buffet by using rum in place of the French vanilla extract, and loading it with candied fruit and walnuts. Serve with a mascarpone cheese spread.

21 December 2006

Kitchen Tools: Annie's Pie Crimper

December darkness came quickly and stealthily to Old Frenchtown, sneaking around the corners of the ancient weather-beaten barns and sheds.

Only the shops on Dunlap Avenue were bright with red and green lights — the shops and the little IGA store located just north of Grandma Annie’s back yard.

Often we went home with Annie in the evenings for a comforting supper in her bright kitchen. The house was cold and dark when we entered, but soon the furnace would roar on and Annie would walk toward the back of the house, shedding her dark coat and hat as she went and neatly stashing them in her closet before turning on the kitchen light.

She’d ignite the gas oven with a tiny poof! and light the burner under the kettle. Always, there was tea to be made and bread to be sliced and pickles to be placed on a cut-glass, leaf-shaped plate.

There would be ham or chicken or turkey and vegetable soup, for Annie’s suppers were simple but homey affairs. Always there was dessert, served with a twinkle in her eye, because of course, it was her favorite.

Annie’s sweet tooth was legendary in family lore.

In the years before she married my handsome Irish grandfather, Annie worked as a seamstress for one of the many French Canadian dressmakers who had shops downtown. On her first payday, she walked past a candy shop on the way home — and promptly spent all her earnings on sweets.

As an adult, Annie loved to bake cakes and cupcakes and pies. The latter is something she shared with my father, her son-in-law. Pies were his specialty, when he wasn’t cooking dinner.

Especially at Christmas, my father made pies for people: Librarians, elderly ladies living alone, old family friends. He rose early on Christmas Eve and made a variety, from fruit pies to cream pies. By 9 a.m., he’d have the car loaded with pies for delivery.

This year, there will be no exchanges of lavish gifts. Instead, I asked my mother for Annie’s pie crimper.

Really, that is all I need.

17 December 2006

How to Roast Chestnuts

We've had a warm spell in Wisconsin, with temperatures hovering around 40 by day and 25 by night. Days are overcast and dull. Evenings are dark and inky but for the scads of colored lights around the neighborhood. The air smells of cold and wood smoke.

You can feel winter solstice is just around the corner.

Tonight seemed like a night for roasting chestnuts. I had plenty of inspiration from fellow bloggers. Christine at Christine Cooks, who always does such romantic things with food and wine, roasted them a few weeks ago. That inspired me to buy some chestnuts, step one.

At Cucina Testa Rossa on Dec. 15, Laura posted an evocative photo of a chestnut vendor in Luxembourg Gardens. I could feel the Paris breeze on my face and smell the Paris smell (imagining, because I have not been there in fall). That galvanized me to roast them, step two.

I don't have a fireplace, so my chestnuts weren't roasted on an open fire. (I've eaten them that way on a blizzard-y evening in December, and they are wonderful. It's the idea of the open fire that adds to the charm and the flavor.)

I do have an oven and plenty of old baking sheets.

Here's how I did it:

• I washed them, allowed them to dry and then using a little Victorinox paring knife, cut crosses in flat, dull topside of the shiny chestnut.

• I pre-heated my oven to 425 and found an old cookie sheet. I placed the chestnuts on the sheet, cross side up (as best I could). I left them in the oven for about 25 minutes, until they looked easy to peel.

• I let the chestnuts cool for just a bit, then wrapped them in a clean kitchen towel and squeezed them. They crackled and were ready to peel. I removed the inner skins, as well as the hard outer shells.

My next chestnut challenge is this: I've bought some chestnut pasta at the supermarket. What to do with it? Ideas are welcome.

16 December 2006

Mediterranean Brown Ale Beef Stew in the Slow Cooker

Saturday — the day we do laundry, run errands and nap — is a good day to cook something slow.

Every day I get recipes in my mail at work and often try them out before including them in my food column. This recipe, which includes beer and beef, sounded tasty and perfect for a cold-weather supper.

The recipe is from the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

Slow-Cooked Mediterranean Brown -Ale Beef Stew
  • 1 12-ounce bottle brown ale beer
  • 1 envelope dry onion-mushroom soup mix
  • 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes (the dry ones)
  • 1 tablespoons flour
  • 4 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons dried rosemary
  • 3 pounds beef chuck stew meet, cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 1 onion, halved and sliced
  • 2 red or orange bell peppers, cut into small strips
  • 1/2 cut pitted Kalamata olives
  • 1/2 cut chopped green olives
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley

Combine beer, soup mix, tomatoes, flour, garlic and rosemary in a slow cooker.

Warm olive oil in large skillet. Brown meat, 1/3 of it at a time. Transfer beef to slow cooker. Brown onion in oil left over from meat. Add onion to the slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for about 6 hours.

Add bell peppers and olives. Cook another 45 minutes on low. Serve stew over rice or pasta. Sprinkle with parsley.

I tasted liberally all afternoon, using and washing tons of spoons. The stew was even good early on before the flavors had a chance to marry. The beef melts in your mouth.

I served with a green salad, hard rolls and a Cotes du Rhone.

12 December 2006

Wild Rice Salad with Walnuts and Corn

There is an old building in my town I've been eyeing rather lustfully. Made of creamy brick, is located along the river, in the very place where wild rice once grew. If my resources were unlimited, I would buy it and turn it into a double-decker restaurant.

Upstairs, at Queen Marinette, the food would be formal but inventive: Steak, of course, because this is Wisconsin. Fresh-caught fish would have a prime place on the menu, as would food that reflects the region's French, German, and Scandinavian heritage: Provincial dishes in an atmosphere of elegance.

I would concentrate on regional foods, building my menu around wild rice, of course, as well as cheese, cranberries, apples, cherries and game: Rather hearty, especially in the winter, but always healthy.

Downstairs, the fare would be more casual: Soups, salads, sandwiches and soufflés. I would call my bistro the Wild Rice Café.

It is, unfortunately, only a dream at this point in my life. But it's always been fun to dream.

One of my menu staples would be this wild rice, walnut and corn salad, adapted from the American Institute for Cancer Research. AICR's recipes are delicous and usually very easy to make.

Wild and Brown Rice, Walnut and Corn Salad
  • 2 cups cooked wild rice and brown rice mix
  • 3/4 cup corn kernels
  • 2 whole scallions, sliced
  • 3 tablespoon chopped walnuts
  • 2 tablespoon chopped red onion
  • 2 tablespoon chopped red and green pepper
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoons parsley flakes
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large bowl, combine everything but oil vinegar and seasonings in a large bowl. Blend vinegar, olive oil and seasonings in a smaller bowl. Toss and allow to stand for 30 minutes in the refrigerator so the flavors can marry.

10 December 2006

A Sun-Dappled Door

It's mild but dark in Wisconsin today.

We are making chili, because for me that is part and parcel of mid-December. That is the time my grandmother always made her chili, and I would be the one called upon to make the chili run, trotting (or trudging) seven blocks away to her house. I liked these trips because they gave me time to imagine and dream. When I got to her house there was always a sweet treat offered and she usually included more than chili in the package she sent home with me.

The dark day may conjure up pleasant memories, but I prefer my days bright. Doesn't the sun-dappled door here look inviting? It's in Paris, near a park and a church or two (isn't everything?).

The first person to correctly name the park, will get a package of wild rice in time for Christmas (or New Year's at the very latest). The contest ends Friday, Dec. 15.

Wild rice was an important part of the diet of the early tribes who settled in my hometown. It's not really a rice, but a coarse annual grass, Zizania Acquatica. It grew in shallow marshes and along the shores and streams. I will be providing recipes made with wild rice later this week.

09 December 2006

Italian Stuffed Pepper Soup

In winter, there is nothing quite like being home for the weekend, with no need to leave the house.

This bliss is best experienced when a pot of soup is part of the scenario, simmering away atop the stove, filling the house with tangy and savory aromas. Bread dough rising on the back of the stove and wind whipping around the corners of the old house enhance the environment, but the soup stands on its own, too.

This one is easy to make and easy to adapt to your tastes.

Italian Stuffed Pepper Soup 
  • 2 pounds lean ground beef
  • 1 small can tomato sauce
  • 2 14.5-ounce cans Italian-style diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 2 cups greeen, red or yellow peppers, cut up into small squares
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 teaspoons beef flavored soup base or two beef bouillion cubes
  • 1/2 cup cooked rice (brown or long-grain converted)
  • Freshly ground pepper

Brown ground beef in stock pot and drain: I usually add a clove of minced garlic and some Tuscan seasonings or herbes de Provence. Add remaining ingredients, except rice. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer about 40 minutes, or until peppers and onions are tender. Add rice. Heat thoroughly and serve.

Top with grated Parmesan cheese, if you like. Garnish with herbs. This makes a wonderful weekend lunch when paired with egg-salad sandwiches. Add a dash of aoili and about a tablesoon of chopped black olives to the egg salad.

06 December 2006

Cranberry-Orange Scones

When December sunsets produced a gloriously striated sky of pink and lavender and salmon, Grandma Annie always said that Santa Claus was making christmas cookies.

We believed that charming myth: It made the already dazzling winter sunsets all the more spectacular and fired our imaginations. What wonders — edible and otherwise — would we encounter come Christmas?

It doesn't matter that Grandma's story was just that, a story to amuse children. It was enchanting!

It was cold and gray today and there was no sun to set. I made scones to ward off the cold draft that rolls under the kitchen door. The rear wing of our old Victorian house on a hill has three doors, and ample opportunities for the cold to slip through, no matter how hard I try to keep it out.

A baking project helps greatly, and scones can be made with ingredients that won't necessarily send fat to the hips, cholesterol to the arteries and blood sugar soaring to new heights.

Low-Fat Cranberry-Orange Scones

  • 1 3/4 cups unbleached flour
  • 4 tablespoons fructose
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 5 tablespoons chilled Smart Balance, cut into small cubes
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 6 tablespoons light half and half
  • 1 large egg (or two egg whites), beaten
  • 2 tablespoons grated orange zest or 1/2 teaspoon orange oil

Preheat oven to 400. Sift dry ingredients in large bowl; cut in Smart Balance (or other low-fat butter substitute). Rub together until dough is grainy. Add cranberries (today, when I saw I did not have enough dry cranberries, I chopped some fresh and added another teaspoon of fructose).

In a separate bowl, blend the half and half, the egg or egg whites and the orange zest. Add this to the dry mix and stir until the dough is blended. Knead lightly while in the bowl.

I use an eight-section scone pan. But you can also make small rounds or wedges and bake them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until tops of scones are golden.

The scones are best eaten hot with orange marmalade. They are not as dense and dry as other scones.

Scones, of course, are not French. But the French take great pride in the success of their baked goods (and why not?) and scones are easy to make and make well.

It really doesn't matter what you bake or make on a dreary December day. But puttering around the kitchen helps drive the cold away, if only in your mind.

Postscript: Oh zut! WhenI was formulating this post in my mind, I was going to provide a link to My Kitchen in Half Cups, because Tanna was the one who inspired me to bake with cranberries, instead of freeze them. These scones would be great with Tanna's cranberry curd, too.

03 December 2006

Boeuf en Daube a la Camargue

We awoke to snow flurries and gray skies on Sunday. It was the kind of day that called for stew, but not my standard dish, something a bit more festive.

We wanted something with a taste of sunshine in it, maybe a dish from the south of France. Boeuf en Daube with capers seemed just the thing to remind us of sunny Provence and our dream of spending the holidays there. The dish was reportedly popular with the gardiens, the famous cowboys of the Camargue.

There are many recipes in cookbooks and online. I’m guessing many cooks borrow from one recipe and then another and come up with their own version. Here is mine, inspired by a recipe in “The French Culinary Institute’s Salute to Healthy Cooking.”

Boeuf en Daube

  • 6-8 small red potatoes, peeled
  • dash fleur de sel from the Camargue
  • 12-16 small carrots
  • 8-10 pearl onions, peeled
  • 1 ½ teaspoons white truffle olive oil
  • 1 pound tenderloin, cubed
  • 1 sweet onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 ½ teaspoons herbes de Provence
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground orange or lemon peel
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • dash Kitchen Bouquet
  • 1/3 cup Niçoise olives
  • 2 tablespoons capers, drained

Before you do anything else, peel the potatoes, clean the carrots, peel the pearl onions, and chop the beef and the sweet onion.

Fill a medium saucepan with cold water and place to potatoes in it. Add salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. After about 8 minutes, add the carrots and pearl onions. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes. Carefully remove the vegetables from the pan, reserving the liquid.

While the vegetables are cooking, brown the beef in olive oil in a large sauté pan. Once the meat is brown on all sides, removed from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside. Sauté onion and garlic in the oil and juices left from the meat. Once the onion softens a bit, add the wine. Continue cooking for about five minutes.

Pour reserved liquid from the vegetables into a stockpot. Add the herbes de Provence and bring to a boil. Allow to simmer before adding the meat. Bring to a second boil, reduce heat and simmer for about 90 minutes.

Taste periodically, adjusting the seasoning as needed. Toward the end of the 90-minute period, add the Kitchen Bouquet, tomatoes and the vegetables. Bring the stew to a boil, and allow to simmer for about five minutes. Add the capers and olives.

Note: If you are using a different cut of meat, you may want to marinate it first in wine, onions and garlic.

30 November 2006

A Recipe for...Water

I have always been finicky about my drinking water. I began filtering it years ago and quickly discovered the difference. It tastes better, smoother somehow. It only stands to reason that quality water is best for cooking.

Each December, I vow to drink more water in the new year. It’s easier to keep that resolution now that I’ve given up soda and high-carbohydrate fruit juices.

I dress my water up with mint or lemon balm in summer. All year long, I use citrus fruits to flavor my drinks.

Lemon is a must for water goblets when you want to set an elegant table. I read somewhere that it helps mitigate the effect of carbohydrates on blood glucose levels, if consumed during a meal. I am not certain if that’s true — I tend to question anything that simple and convenient — but it is true that a wedge of lemon gives a touch of panache to a simple glass of water.

Of course, you can purchase flavored water everywhere these days. But it’s so much better when fresh, and flavored with fresh juice instead of extracts and chemicals. Once you begin to drink your water this way, the bottled stuff tastes flat and stale.

Like many travelers, my husband and I carry water bottles everywhere. We always travel with string bags, too; in Paris, my husband kept his water bottle and a piece of fruit in his bag, looped around his belt. It sustained us, even when we got lost in the jumble of streets just east of the Pantheon on an unseasonably warm May Day weekend.

We stopped to refill our bottles at the famous Wallace Fountains that are scattered around Paris. I’ll send two packets of Door County Coffee (brew it with high-quality water) to the first Francophile foodie, blogger or anyone else who can identify the location of the fountain in the photo (street name, please!). This woman jumped out of a cab to fill two large bottles and we snapped away.

26 November 2006

Brandy Baked Pears

Since mid-October when it became evident I had purchased too many apples during the waning days of the local farm market, we have been feasting on baked apples laced with brown sugar and cinnamon and stuffed with raisins and walnuts.

It was time to upgrade to a pear.

As much as I love apples, pears have a certain je ne sais quois that apples lack — a subtle sophistication in both form and taste.

We loved this recipe:

Brandy Baked Pears

  • 6 firm pears
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup pear brandy

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees. Peel and halve the pears. Use a melon-baller or apple corer to remove the core. Pour brown sugar into bowl or flat baking pan; coat pears with sugar.

Melt butter in shallow baking dish in microwave or oven. Add the pears, spooning some of the butter on top. Add water to the baking dish, and bake until pears become tender and sugar and butter begins to carmelize. Remove from oven, add brandy to pear dish and allow to sit for 2-5 minutes. Keep spooning juices over the pears.

For topping, I mixed mascarpone cheese with brandy and some of the juices. You can also mix 1/4 cup chilled heavy cream that has been whipped until soft peaks form with one teaspoon of brandy.

We added roasted walnuts and a shake of cinnamon to the pears before serving.

20 November 2006

Salad with Cranberries, Goat Cheese, Toasted Walnuts and Maple-Fig Dressing

I needed a salad. I did not think the standard tossed salad would do.

Driven by a bottle of Maple Grove Farms Maple-Fig Dressing, this is what I came up with: A mix of bitter, sweet and earthy flavors.

Salad with Cranberries, Goat Cheese, Toasted Walnuts and Maple-Fig Dressing

3 cups green leaf lettuce, washed and torn
1/2 cup walnuts, sautéed in butter, brown sugar and cinnamon
1/3 cup dried cranberries
3 tablespoons goat cheese with herbs
3-4 thin slices sweet yellow onion
maple-fig dressing

First sauté the walnuts in about 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter, tablespoon brown sugar and a dash of cinnamon. Toast under low heat — 200 degrees — in a toaster oven for about 20 minutes. Dry on paper towels.

While the walnuts are roasting, use the same pan to lightly brown thin slices of onion. Drain onions on paper towel.

Toss onions and walnuts with lettuce. Add cranberries and goat cheese. Splash with dressing — a little goes a long way.

It happened that the goat cheese I had on hand was flavored with basil and garlic so I had my doubts. But it worked. IN fact, I think it would be bland without the extra boost of flavor.

The recipe above made salads for three people.

Sorry to do two salad posts in three days, but I'm eating lightly (yeah, right) in preparation for Thursday.

19 November 2006

Warm Chocolate Bread Pudding with Cognac and Cointreau

Chocolate Bread Pudding, from 2006

Funny how traditions start: For me, this is a chocolate time of year. It began one Thanksgiving when I was stuck in Madison, with a weekend job and an anthropology paper due Monday.

The paper was a critique of Laurence Wylie's "A Village in the Vaucluse," a look at rural Provence around 1950. But on Thanksgiving Day, after consuming a chicken dinner for one (I had no invitations that year, but that suited me fine), I spent the long afternoon reading Colette's "Claudine."

And at dusk, I ate a hastily-thrown together chocolate soufflé. Somehow, Colette makes me crave chocolate. So does November, when darkness comes early bringing with it a chill and on windy nights, the sound of dead leaves scuttling across the pavement.

So tonight, with my mom coming for supper, we had chocolate bread pudding for dessert. It has a layered taste, not unlike wine. Fresh out of the oven, the pudding offered an aftertaste of ripe olives, my husband thought. Warmed over, it tasted very decadent.

Chocolate Bread Pudding with Cognac and Cointreau
  • 4 cups stale French or Italian bread
  • 4 large eggs
  • one cup sugar 
  • 1/2-cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup baking cocoa
  • pinch salt
  • 1/2 cup cognac
  • 1/4 cup cointreau
  • 1 - 1 2/2 cups quality semi-sweet chocolate pieces

If the bread is very dry, soak it in two percent milk.  While bread is soaking, combine all other ingredients in a large bowl. Add the bread to the bowl and allow the entire mix to stand for a while, even overnight in the refrigerator, if you like.

Pour into greased casserole or large soufflé dish. I used two medium-sized ramekins and four small ones. Bake in a preheated, 325 oven until puddings are slightly firm —— about 30 minutes (but check frequently).

Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and top candied orange peel. I served mine plain, and they were fine.

When I lived in Green Bay a decade or so ago, my friends and I used to go to a wonderful downtown restaurant called "La Bonne Femme," where the dessert menu included a deep chocolate cream dish. On November days, that was always what I wanted.

17 November 2006

The Art of Living: Cider and Santas on a Cold Afternoon

Enjoying life (and food and wine) is inextricably linked to so many other sensual experiences.

I’m not talking about sex here.

Sight and smell and sound are all part of the experience. Why else do we fuss so over dishes, table linens, centerpieces, candles and dinner music?

I don’t imagine many of you will disagree.

So that’s why I wanted to share this afternoon with you. In addition to my weekly food column, I write a feature about working people. On Thanksgiving weekend, I usually feature someone associated with the holidays.

This year, I revisited an artist who makes wonderful, whimsical papiér maché figures. She is best known locally for her Santas.

Her farm is about 15 miles out of town to the north, where pine forest closes in on farm field. She and her husband live in an old log cabin that was long ago combined with a farm house to create a home that is full of odd-shaped rooms and nooks and crannies and comfortable old furniture covered in fabrics you can no longer find. Comfort is the key word here, old comfort, nothing too new and overstuffed.

An old granary serves as her studio. It is filled with dancing frogs and flying pigs and trees with faces and just about any creature that can be molded of papiér maché wrapped around a dried gourd or piece of driftwood. In her world, pumpkins dance and turtles ride piggyback atop one another.

Her Santas I leave for you to judge. But aren’t they exquisite?

I had looked forward to this visit all week. I was not disappointed. We sat around a space heater in her studio, and sipped mulled cider and nibbled on apple kringle to a background of soft Celtic music. We talked art, not food. (But that didn’t matter. It was an enchanting afternoon and whetted my appetite for more — more time to enjoy the worlds of art and nature. What better place to do that than in my own kitchen?)

Outside the studio, the air was fragrant with wood smoke. Chickens cackled and lambs bleated. Crows flew overhead and I could hear a downy woodpecker somewhere. Leaves crunched underfoot. The wine-dark smell of old leaves is gone now, but it has left behind a scent of winter on the rise.

If all goes well tomorrow, I’ll spend the afternoon in my own kitchen, with a scented candle burning and jazz tunes playing. Outside, the air will smell of wood smoke, too, for my neighbor Jerry likes a good fire on cold days. Crows will caw overhead and I may see a few late-season Canada geese flying south. I can't recreate the feel of this afternoon, but it's Saturday — my day — and nothing is going to stop me from enjoying life.

24 October 2006

Herbes de Provence

My French Kitchen in America is almost never without an ample supply of herbes de Provence, even if I have to make them myself.

The basis for herbes de Provence are rosemary, thyme and bay leaf. Other additions are usually marjoram, basil, summer savory and fennel. I like it best when culinary lavender is included.

Now that I live in a small town, this blend is difficult to find locally. I usually buy a jar whenever I visit a Penzeys outlet, usually in Madison, or buy them online.

Fortunately, they are available from Esprit du Sel, blended with sea salt for about $8 at a local supermarket. In this form, I use them to flavor and draw moisture from cut-up eggplant before making ratatouille. Herbes de Provence make a great rub for summer grilling. Lately, I've run across recipes for turkey using herbes de Provence. Since my husband wants ham for Thanksgiving, I'll have to find another way to work them into the menu.

When I blend my own herbes, I use this mix:

  • 1 Tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 Tablespoon dried thyme
  • 1 Tablespoon marjoram
  • 1 Tablespoon dried summer savory
  • 1/2 Tablespoon rosemary

To taste:
lavender buds
fennel seeds
dried sage

Note: Yesterday, our three-year-old iMac refused to boot. We are taking it to the nearest Apple repair shop tomorrow, which means an out-of-town trip. I'll be able to shop at a larger supermarket and visit some specialty shops.

How will I survive what is likely to be a two-week period without a home computer? Yikes!

21 October 2006

Potage a l'Oignon (Onion Soup)

“They’re very sweet,” said the farmer, rearranging the golden onions in the white basket. “But I won’t be here after this week. . .”

So of course, I bought them. There were only three farm market vendors braving yesterday’s chill and I noticed prices were up. No matter. The fresh produce is still a bargain, compared to the older stuff you find at the supermarket.

I loaded up on onions, thinking the weather was perfect for onion soup, usually Saturday night fare at our house.

This version was sweeter than usual. It could have been dessert. Oh, but it was wonderful.

Sweet Onion Soup for Two

  • 3 of the sweetest onions you can find, peeled and sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 Tablespoon flour
  • 2 cups beef bouillon
  • 2 cups chicken bouillon
  • ¼ cup warm milk
  • Dash ground pepper
  • Dash sea salt
  • Dash herbes de Provence

After you’ve sliced the onions, brown them slightly in butter in a heavy stockpot or skillet. Add flour and brown, until the onions turn golden.

Add hot beef and chicken bouillon and allow the soup to come to a boil. Lower the heat and allow it to simmer for 20 minutes.

Next, add the milk and allow it to simmer a bit longer. Add pepper, salt and herbes. My husband prefers his without cheese, but I usually do a blend of Mozzarella and Parmesan.

Sometimes I add croutons that have been sautéed in butter and garlic. Tonight: simple French dinner rolls.

18 October 2006

Coincidence? Or a Sign of Approval?

You can't always get what you want. Most of the time.

I had a meeting tonight at the public library. I got there early and went straight to the used-book room, where books are 50 cents each.

There it was. My father’s favorite French cookbook, the one he could not afford to own, but would check out of the library several times a year: “The Art of French Cooking by the Great Contemporary Masters of the Cuisine,” 861 pages with the pull-out gastronomical map of France still in its pocket.

The same book. Not the same book at a different library. The same book, for my husband and I moved back to our hometown a few years ago. The book sat on the library shelves for 40 years. It was already 10 years old when my father discovered it.

I thought about the book once in a while, enviously, wishing I owned it. I assumed the library got rid of it long ago, and since I borrow books from another library, I never bothered to check for it. Or I forgot to. Who knows.

“If you ever want to buy me something, buy me this book,” my father once said. I was in college then and had no money.

It was the book he often took into the pantry with him, to dream, to ponder to create.

Now it’s mine. Grilled Quails Berchoux. Breton Galettes. Anise Cakes. Beef Filet Dauphine. Larks in Shrouds. Spinach Jaqueline.

I may not work my way through the whole book.

But now it’s mine.

15 October 2006

The View from the Pantry Kitchen

My chef father may have cooked in the kitchen, but he maintained a small office area in the pantry. Here he could sit with his morning coffee and peruse cookbooks for new ideas. He kept a pad and pencil for jotting down ideas and even articles he wished could someday write. (He yearned to be a writer, not a chef. I write for a living, but hope to become an accomplished cook.)

After reading Lydia's Oct. 12 post at The Perfect Pantry — in which she poses the question, "When you think of a pantry, what comes to mind?" — I started thinking about that kitchen office. Our pantry was large and had built-in, floor-to-ceiling shelves on one side of a long narrow room. At the end was a high window and a counter. The window overlooked a gravel driveway and our backyard. There my father pulled up his high stool.

Unwittingly, I created the same sort of perch for myself when I bought a high stool that can be pulled up to the kitchen counter. My own window overlooks a copse of cedar trees and a 110-year-old horse-and-buggy barn (pictured above).

In spring and summer I can watch birds of all kinds at the feeders or in the copper birdbath. In fall, I watch the garden turn to russet and gold and often see migrating birds flying above. One cold day I spotted a group of trumpeter swans undulating across the sky.

In winter, I watch cardinals, chickadees and juncos eat the sunflower seeds I put out for them. There are plenty of squirrels and rabbits but also the occasional wild turkey or fox.

It is a relaxing place to sit and dream, to conjure up new recipes or even pay bills. I expect it was for my father too.

12 October 2006

From the Heart of France: Gouere aux Pommes

One of the first cookbooks I bought on my own was Elizabeth David’s "French Country Cooking." I pictured David as a motherly sort, a bit plump perhaps, with an academic interest in the hearty French provincial dishes I yearned to master.

How wrong I was! David was a free spirit, a young woman of means who, after a short stint as an actress, ran off with a married lover. Her marriage to another man was one of convenience. (Like MFK Fisher, she was far ahead of her time in many ways). A cerebral hemmorrhage destroyed her sense of taste at middle age — what a tragedy!

Along with Julia Child, David and Fisher are a triumverate of “French” cooks whose books are now joined by Patricia Wells, Susan Herrmann Loomis and Georgeanne Brennan on my kitchen bookshelf.

Last night, I pulled Elizabeth from the shelf, thumbed through the now-yellowed pages and adapted this easy dessert, which she described as "a country sweet from the Berry district of France."

Gouère aux Pommes

  • one pound apples, sliced and chopped
  • two tablespoons brandy
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • squeeze of lemon

  • 1 ½ cups of plus two tablespoons flour
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • pinch salt
  • two eggs
  • one teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 ¼ cup milk

Wash, peel and chop apples. Place in bowl and cover with brandy, lemon, cinnamon and sugar. Set aside.

In separate bowl, blend flour, sugar and salt. Add eggs, milk and vanilla to create a batter.

Blend the apples with the batter and pour into a square pan. Bake at 350 until top is brown and center of cake is firm, about 45 minutes.

• I used Pink Lady apples, and made cinnamon applesauce from the scraps that were left over, in a nod to my frugal French heritage.

• As always, I used fructose instead of sugar. Any sugar substitute, as long as it can be used in baking, will do. Next time I will use brown sugar for the apples, but not the batter.

• Even with the addition of cinnamon, the dessert is a bit bland for contemporary tastes, which is why I served it with a vanilla sauce made from American Spoon Foods' Vanilla Curd.

Cinnamon, lemon and brandy sauces would work as well. Perhaps a dollop of cream?

If you are lucky enough to watch the BBC, you can see "A Life in Recipes," a program about David, on Oct. 30. More recipes are included in the BBC link.

Finally, I was curious what the word "gouère" meant as it was one I had not seen before. Since I could not find a translation, even in my Harrap's dictionary, a hefty tome I've been dragging around since French 204, I can only guess it is a regional word. I found a reference to apple gouère in a magazine story about the Berry.

08 October 2006

Roasted Potatoes with Herbes de Provence

In October, even our weekends are busier than usual. Family and social obligations, getting the cars and house ready for winter, volunteering and having fun take time away from the kitchen.

So Sunday dinner was a bit rushed today. Meatloaf is one of my favorite comfort foods, but it's a bit plain, so I always try to dress it up a bit. This week, the "dressing" was a recipe I found on Epicurious. They call it "Potatoes Roasted with Olive Oil and Bay Leaves."

But I call it Potatoes with Herbes de Provence.

  • 8 medium red potatoes
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • 40 small bay leaves
  • one tablespoon sea salt
  • 2 teaspoons herbes de Provence
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat oven to 350. Wash potatoes but do not peel. Make 5-6 parallel slices in each potato, but do not cut all the way through. Tuck one bay leave into the cuts of each potato. Place potatoes in small, oven-proof dish that has been coated with olive oil. Drizzle with olive oil, coating evenly. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and herbes over the potatoes. Place in oven for about 55 minutes. Place under pre-heated broiler for about four minutes, until potatoes begin to brown. Remove bay leaves before serving.

The bay leaf imparts a delicate taste to the potatoes. I used small Yukon Gold, because that's what I found in the bottom of the crisper. All in all it was a good foil for the meatloaf, which was light but savory. Our vegetable was sliced tomatoes.

04 October 2006

The Ubiquitous Laguiole Bees

A few years back, when I set out to make my kitchen more “French” — long before I realized all the culinary accouterments in the world would not make it so — I bought a set of Laguiole steak knives. You know, the knives made in France and always decorated with a little bee design where the handle meets the blade.

I have no complaints. The slender, elegant knives cut meat swiftly and evenly. Because my knives have stainless steel handles they can be used in the dishwasher — a welcome convenience for a time-strapped cook like me.

It’s that darned bee. He looks different everytime I see him. If I want to buy — say table service for eight — I may get a different bee design. No big deal: I don't like matchy-matchy stuff anyway. But still.

As I learned last year, the Lagiuole is a type of knife, not a brand. The name is not restricted to any single company. An estimated 70-80 different manufacturers, some large and others cottage industries, produce Lagiuole cutlery. That explains the poorly made service for eight I saw for about 20 euros in a LeClerc store.

From what I've read, Laguiole knives originated in the early 19th century in the Avreyon town of Laguiole. Today, about 70 percent of the cutlery (the industry has expanded) is produced in the south of France.

Is the little critter on the handle a bee or a cattle fly? There is some debate there. (I say bee. The bees in France are so benign. They buzz contentedly and hover about, but never seem to sting. At least in my scant experience.)

The design differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. How many ways can a bee look? Many, it seems.

Ultimately, it does not matter that the Laguiole bees are not uniform, as long as the knives slice and cut and spread and do everything knives are meant to do.

All the Laguiole in the world won't make my kitchen French. It's — as I've said before — more of an attitude thing anyway. And my kitchen has plenty of attitude.

01 October 2006

Georgeanne Brennan's Provençal Chicken with Olives, Tomatoes and Red Peppers

For my husband’s birthday on Saturday, I made the same meal I made for my own birthday in July: Georgeanne Brennan’s Provençal Chicken, Patricia Wells' roasted potatoes, fresh green beans, and perhaps a caprese salad.

Georgeanne’s chicken recipe, available on her Web site (see link above), is full of tomatoes and herbs, and to my unsophisticated American palate tastes of deepest Provence. Here it is:

Provençal Chicken with Olives, Tomatoes and Red Peppers

1 fryer chicken, about 3 pounds, cut into serving pieces, or a selection of breasts and thighs
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil 

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup minced yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 to 6 large, very ripe tomatoes, chopped or 3 cups chopped canned plum tomatoes and their juice
2 sweet red peppers, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 fresh bay leaves or 1 dried leaf
16 oil-cured black olives

Use half the crushed herbs as a rub for the chicken. Then, using a large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the chicken pieces in a single layer just when the oil and butter are near to smoking. Sauté the chicken pieces over medium heat until they are browned on both sides. This takes only 2-3 minutes per side.

Add the onion and garlic and cook a while longer (1-2 minutes) before adding the tomatoes, pepper and bay leaves. Cover. Reduce heat to medium low and cook for about 35-40 minutes.

Uncover the pan, increase the heat to medium again, add olives and cook until the sauce thickens. Add the remaining herbs and serve. The chicken will be extremely tender.

I have used chicken breasts instead of chicken parts. I have also used green peppers when red were not available or were too costly. This dish is too good to forgo just because you have no red peppers!

25 September 2006

My Grandmother's Goblets

I am constantly amazed at the beautiful glassware on the market. The colors, the design and the sparkle are delectable — pure eye candy!

Of course I always want to own them. The idea of serving a deep Malbec in a cranberry-hued goblet or ice water in heavy Swedish crystal is alluring. Because of course, presentation is essential to the enjoyment of good food and drink.

In my spendthrift past I often bought glassware I did not need because I liked the way I thought it would look on my table. Once I paid $20 per goblet in a French-style wine shop, only to find the same glassware at TJ Maxx for $4.99 each. So I vowed “Never again!”

When Grandma Annie’s house was sold, I inherited her pressed glass goblets. For as long as I can remember, these attractive but inexpensive goblets were used at Sunday dinner and any other time Annie wanted to set an elaborate table. I know nothing about the glasses’ provenance. I do know she had them as a young married woman.

The exteriors of two or three of the glasses are speckled with the deep red paint used on the inside of a cabinet in her kitchen in the 1930s or 40s. I have no wish to remove those tiny red dots — on the outside, I am sure they are harmless.

My husband and I have a small collection of wine glasses and champagne flutes. But especially as the holidays approach, we start thinking about libations for Grandma Annie’s glasses. Right now, I am thinking about cider or some plum-y, jam-y wine from Lower Michigan. . .nothing too fancy as befits these simple but treasured glasses.

21 September 2006

Autumn Along the Shore . . . and Pumpkin Cravings

Driving home from class the other day I noticed that the grasses along the shore had begun to turn yellow and brown. Here and there, small patches of sumac were becoming a deep crimson. The sky was overcast and the sun only a hint. Luckily, I had my camera along.

It was raining when I got back to town, the kind of rain that comes and goes but nevertheless forces you inside, preferably inside your kitchen where you will make something comforting to eat.

Pumpkin. I wanted pumpkin. When I finally got home, I found a can of pumpkin from last year (still good, it says so on the bottom of the can) and a few other ingredients, including Bisquick. Emboldened by my fellow food bloggers over at My Husband Cooks, who made Tater Tot salads the other day (much to my delight), I bravely included Bisquick in the ingredients.

This is what I made: Crustless Pumpkin Pie

1 cup canned pumpkin
½ cup Bisquick
½ cup fructose
1 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 ½ teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs

Pre-heat oven to 350. Mix all ingredients in large bowl. Transfer to greased pie plate and bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes, until pie is firm in the middle and slightly browned at the edges. Serve chilled with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon.

The original recipe from Bisquick calls for evaporated milk, but I’ve always used buttermilk. I made this a time or two last year when a local bakery was selling pumpkin custard pies.

Chi-chi? No. Satisfying? You betcha.

17 September 2006

Steak Provencal with Roasted Potatoes

When I was growing up, Saturday night was steak night. Wisconsin was filled with steakhouses, many located on the outskirts of town, some in old farmhouses, others in former roadhouses. The classic meal was a thick, juicy steak with baked potato and sour cream, preceded by an iceberg-lettuce salad and maybe a cheese tray.

My father was well-known in this corner of the world for his steaks. He just knew how to do them. They were brown on the outside, pink on the inside, tender and flavorful. Growing up, I preferred chicken or fish: There was just too much steak around!

During college, I ate little meat, preferring to explore vegan fare. Then I married a man who is a steak lover.

I began to take pride in my own steaks. My standard way of preparing them was with a garlic-and-herb rub. But recently I discovered a recipe for Steak Provençal that I really love. It pairs well with roasted potatoes from Patricia Wells, Wisconsin native and fellow UW-Madison journalism alum.

Steak Provençal for Two


  • 1 large yellow onion, finely diced
  • 4 small green onions, sliced
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoons lemon zest
  • Dash herbes de Provence
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Sea salt

Marinate your favorite cuts of meat for 2-4 hours in the refrigerator. If the price is right, I prefer filet mignon. But select tenderloin is fine.

Remove from marinade. Broil until fully cooked, turned steaks frequently to ensure they lie flat and are fully cooked. When finished, add ground pepper and add a dash of sea salt.

Roasted Potatoes

  • 1 dozen small new potatoes
  • Olive oil
  • Sea salt

Preheat oven to 425. Wash but do not peel the potatoes. Cut them in half and coat with olive oil. Place flat side down in a greased pan and roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, until the potatoes have turned a golden brown. Sprinkle with sea salt.

I usually serve this meal with a tomato salad and roasted or sautéed peppers and a not-too-tannic red wine.

14 September 2006

Apple-Cheddar Scones

Autumn is coming on fast here in northern Wisconsin. Last year at this time, everything was still very green. But we've had a spate of cool nights, a few damp days here and there and a host of glorious sunny days in the past few weeks. Cool nights and sunny days make for red and gold leaves.

And they are turning already, along the road out to the university and even in town. Last year's autumn was long and lingering, but I suspect this one will be quick. Our spring was earlier.

What does this have to do with food? Nothing, really, except that foods typically associated with a season enhance your enjoyment of that time of year.

Most people claim fall as their favorite season up here. Apples are plentiful and this being Wisconsin, so is cheese.

I baked these scones tonight (I've decided to experiment with a new seasonal recipe each month).

Apple-Cheddar-Walnut Scones

  • 1 1/2 cups flour (I used whole wheat pastry flour and white flour)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (depends on your preference)
  • 1/4 cup sugar (I used fructose)
  • 1/4 cup cold unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup applesauce
  • 1/3 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 400. In large bowl, combine dry ingredients. Cut in the butter, using a pastry tool or your fingers to create a grainy texture. In a small bowl, blend the buttermilk, cheese, applesauce and walnuts. Add the moist mix to the dry mix and blend thoroughly. Divide into 8 balls and place on ungreased cookie sheet or use a greased scone pan. Bake for about 20 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center indicates the scones are thoroughly baked. The scones will be a golden brown. Serve warm, with apple butter.

The true test for scones is how they do when warmed over. These held their moisture, a rare feat for a scone.

08 September 2006

Apple Cider Making

It’s a good night for hunkering down at home with a big bowl of popcorn and maybe a cool mug of apple cider.

It was a night just like this that some friends held their annual cider-making party last year. I was among the dozen or so guests who began preparing bushels and bushels of apples late in the afternoon.

The five varieties of apples, picked at a nearby orchard a week earlier, had been left to mature for a few days.

Working an old-fashioned cider press is hard work, and it was left to the more muscular guests, thankfully.

It seemed to take hours. Meanwhile, an herb-encrusted lamb roast cooked on a covered outdoor grill, perfuming the air outside. In the kitchen, three separate casseroles of potatoes, squash and green beans cooked in the hostess's big ovens. Two different fruit desserts cooled atop the stove. A fire roared away in the living room, and bottles of a peppery red and a nippy white wine were set out for guests to sample.

Dinner was served as soon as the apple pomace had been made into liquid.

We filled two tables, one in the dining room and one in the kitchen. The hostess joined us at the kitchen table and the talk turned to plays, music, restoring old houses and even, perhaps because of the dark evening and the approaching fall holiday, ghosts and unexplained occurrences.

The guests were a diverse and eclectic group, representing all segments of our small town, for the hostess is a collector of interesting people. What struck me was how often food and dinner tables serve as uniters.

Dinner conversation lasted until nearly 11 p.m., from salad to apple crisp and (decaf) coffee. I was sorry to leave, but Laurie sent us all on our way with a plate of leftovers. Eventually, each of us received a jug of apple cider, too.

I won't be making apple cider tonight. But my kitchen is warm and my house is cozy and redolent of roasted peppers and autumn vegetables. Not a bad beginning to a rainy night at home.

02 September 2006

France: The Worker in the Vineyard

During our stay in the Lot Valley, it was important not to rush around seeing things and taking pictures but to give in to the rhythm of the tiny village in which we stayed. We wanted to experience everyday life in rural France.

Mornings we drove down to Cahors, prowling the markets and the shops and cafés. Afternoons we preferred to stay closer to home.

The lovely house our friend loaned us after my husband’s surgery was too enchanting, with its tile floors, massive armors, comfortable sofas. Herbs and lilacs grew in the yard; everything was green and lichen-covered. Why leave? Here was sheer magic!

Nearly 300 years old, the home turned its back on the village and faced a vineyard. Afternoons while my husband rested, I sat by the pool listening to the calls of roosters and cuckoos and the droning of contented and very benign bees in the warm spring sunshine.

Looking down into the vineyards, I noticed a solitary worker, who began his task of staking the vines at about 9 a.m. each day. He worked until noon, took the traditional two-hour hour break, and went back to his vines. Between 2 p.m. and about 6:30, the sound of chain saws and tractors would ring out across the valley again, competing with the roosters and cuckoos.

The man in the vineyard went about his work, never looking up. I wondered if he could hear so strong was his attention to task. I later learned he could not.

For a week, I watched his progress. I don’t know if he ever saw me up there, but I considered him my companion on those sunny afternoons.

I sometimes think of him, when I am working at a repetitive task and giving it my full attention. I wonder if he is content with his job. Or does he merely tolerate it? Does he wish for a different lot in life? Is he happy staking vines and caring for grapes used in making the famous Black Wine of Cahors. I hope he is.

Several bottles of wine from the very grapes he tended had been left for us by our hostess. They were deep and rich and tannic and we drank from them in the evenings, once we closed the shutters and settled in. Our wine tasting was always accompanied by hooting from an owl that sat in the lilac tree each night.

Those were wonderful days and nights, the vineyard, the worker, the wine, the owl, the church bells and the smell of wood smoke and herbs. Such deep contentment!

01 September 2006

Parmesan Cheese Scones with Herbes de Provence

Scones don't have to be sweet.

Several years ago I finally broke down and invested in a cast-iron scone pan.

I was writing an article about scones for my weekly food column and figured I’d better have some first-hand knowledge. Since then I have periodically made sweet scones, usually pumpkin-raisin or cinnamon, but I wanted to try some savory scones this time. Why not scones with herbes de Provence?

Parmesan Scones with Herbes de Provence

  • 1 cup pre-sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • ½-cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • ¼-teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons Herbes de Provence
  • ½-stick cold butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large eggs
  • 1 large egg yoke, reserve the white for glaze
  • ½-cup buttermilk

Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees. Blend dry ingredients, including cheese, in a large bowl. Cut in the butter, working it into the flour with your fingers or with a pastry tool. Mixture should crumbly.

In a small bowl, blend egg, egg yoke and buttermilk. Gradually add to dry mixture until a sticky dough is formed. This is where an eight-section scone pan comes in handy. But you can also shape dough into round balls and place on a lightly greased baking sheet.

Beat leftover egg white, and brush each scone with it, sprinkling on additional Parmesan or herbs, if you like.

Bake scones for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Makes 5-6 scones.

The delicate flavor of these scones pairs well with cheese as well as honey or jam. I thought butter with a lavender honey spread might be tasty.

Next time, I may increase the herbes de Provence for more zest.

29 August 2006

Famous Door County Cherry Dessert

Michigan, my home state, is the country’s largest producer of cherries.

Wisconsin is right up there, with the beautiful Door Peninsula still home to many ancient orchards lined with gnarled cherry trees.

Cherry country in this area of the Great Lakes is known for small villages filled, lamentably, with many tourist attractions but also with good wineries and comfortable inns and resorts. And of course, cherries, which are used in all manner of cakes, tea breads, muffins, pancakes, waffles, salads, dressings and scones.

Here is an easy cherry dessert that is similar to dump cake, but which deserves a more elegant name.

Door County Cherry Dessert
  • 4 cups frozen cherries or three cans of cherry pie filling
  • 1 package cake mix, any flavor
  • 2 cups chopped walnuts or pecans
  • 2 sticks of non-salted butter, melted

Pre-heat oven to 350. Spread the cherries in a 13 x 9 inch rectangular pan. Next, add the dry cake mix, distributing evenly. Drizzle melted butter over cake mix, reserving some. Sprinkle with nuts and top with remaining melted butter. Bake for about 50 minutes until the top is golden brown. Serve with whip cream, ice cream or alone. A small piece is very satisfying.

This is an easy treat for co-workers. I've brought it to work many times, and it never fails to draw rave reviews.

25 August 2006

Zucchini Bread with Mascarpone-Honey Spread

On a search through my recipe files, I found Aunt Jane’s recipe for zucchini bread. What perfect timing, as I have mounds of zucchini today, extras from the kind-hearted Hmong farmer from whom I buy the bulk of my vegetables.

The paper on which the recipe is written is stained and dog-eared and crumpled, for Jane made it every summer, more than once, I suspect. She gave loaves away to family and friends, of course, and we scarfed it down greedily.

Jane’s zucchini bread is rich and moist and really needs no other accompaniment but melting butter and a cold glass of milk. But I like to add a mascarpone spread to dress it up a bit.

The bread is spicy, too, like Jane herself, the spirited one in a family of demure Catholic girls. Though she was born on Bastille Day, Jane took after the Irish, not the French, side of her family. She managed to avoid parochial school, instead attending the public high school, where she had an awfully good time. She later dropped out of nursing school, eloping with a handsome theatre usher. The two bumped along together for decades, rearing two sons, until divorcing after 30 years of marriage. Finally, Jane scandalized her family by becoming a bartender in her 60s.

She had a talent for making people laugh, and for baking rather whimsical treats, like some delicious candy-like goodies called “Goofballs.”

When I think of zucchini bread, I think of Jane, fondly. When paired with my Mascarpone-Honey Spread, her zucchini bread rises to new heights.

Zucchini Bread with Mascarpone-Honey Spread

  • 3 eggs
  • One-cup oil
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups shredded zucchini
  • ½ cup raisins soaked in cognac
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ¼ tsp baking powder
  • Pinch powdered cloves
  • 1 Tbs. cinnamon

Blend eggs, oil, sugar and shredded zucchini in a large bowl. Drain the raisins, reserving the cognac, and add those to the bowl. Sift the dry ingredients into another large bowl. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredient bowl, stirring until well mixed. Transfer to two greased loaf pans. Bake at 40-45 minutes in 350-degree oven.


One 8-ounce carton Mascarpone cheese
One Tablespoon orange-flavored honey
One-teaspoon cognac
Pinch orange zest
Pinch cinnamon
Pinch of sugar, if needed

Blend ingredients and spread on bread. Top with chopped walnuts and raisins, if you like.

17 August 2006

Olive Dip for Chips

The food stores and supermarchés in France are filled with products that are downright impossible to find in the United States, certainly not in small towns like mine.

Many products — like oils, honeys, mustards, aoili, jams, sauces and spreads — are available from a variety of online sources.

I have had no luck, however, finding olive-flavored potato chips, which we fell in love with on our last visit to France. Chips made with olive oil, yes, but none that taste of olives and potatoes and sea salt, a distinctly Mediterranean flavor.

A few months back, my husband said, “Why don’t you try making an olive dip?”

And so I did.

Olive Dip for Chips and Crackers

  • 1 eight-ounce container cream cheese,* softened
  • 1/3 cup chopped green olives and pimentos
  • ¼ cup chopped black olives
  • 2 teaspoons liquid from green olives
  • 1 teaspoon minced onion
  • ¼ teaspoon minced garlic
  • sea salt to taste

Allow cream cheese to soften until it is at room temperature. Blend ingredients in order of listing above. Chill at least 6 hours to allow the flavors to marry. Allow dip to warm to room temperature before serving. Best served with something bland like potato chips, but also good with many crackers and raw vegetables.