Latest Posts

cinnamon pie crust sticks

Cinnamon Pie Crust Sticks Like Nana Used to Make

A few weeks ago I attended a food journalism conference where editors told the assembled writers, “No more grandmother stories.” Everybody has a grandmother. No one wants to hear about her anymore.

jar of cinnamon pie crust

That watershed moment — seeing a jar of cinnamon pie crust at Reading Terminal Market

The timing couldn’t have been stranger. Just that morning, while wandering around Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, I came across something that I hadn’t seen or thought about in years, something that reminded me of my paternal grandmother, whom I also hadn’t seen in years and about whom I’ve never written. A relic from early childhood, they were strips of pie crust dusted in cinnamon sugar.

At the Market they were called “cinnamon sugar pie fries.” When I was a little kid, they were ‘scraps of leftover pie dough that Nana had decorated with cinnamon sugar and baked.’ Now I think of them as cinnamon pie crust sticks.

cinnamon pie crust sticks

Plate of cinnamon pie crust sticks

Unlike many food writers, I don’t have charming stories of baking with my grandmothers or mother. By the time that I was old enough to whisk eggs or roll out dough, my maternal grandmother was gone and my paternal grandmother had eased out of her role as family cook and baker. As I’ve mentioned before, my mother equated time spent in the kitchen with a prison sentence; you grudgingly did your time and didn’t talk much about it. Needless to say, we didn’t bake together.

I do, however, have that memory of standing in my grandmother’s small, warm kitchen, munching on roughly cut pieces of pie crust decorated with cinnamon and sugar. As a six-year-old, I found few foods as exotic as those sweet yet spicy, flaky yet crunchy, irregularly shaped treats.

Scraps of pie dough

Scraps of dough waiting to become cinnamon pie crust sticks

Although I don’t bake pies very often, when I do, I save those scraps just as my grandmother used to do and turn them into cinnamon pie crust sticks. While you don’t need a recipe to make them, I will offer one below. Please feel free to fiddle with proportions so that you get the sweetness or spiciness that you crave. Likewise, if you don’t bake pies but still want to try these little sweets, pick up some frozen pie dough. It’ll be almost as good as Nana used to make.

Keeping in mind that not everyone makes her own pie dough, I’ve written this for frozen pie crust fans.
Makes approximately 4 dozen cinnamon pie crust sticks

2 9-inch frozen pie crusts, removed from the pie tins and defrosted
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Place one of the frozen pie crusts on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, slice the dough into strips approximately 2-inches long and 1/2-inch wide. Place the strips an inch apart on the baking sheet.

Unbaked cinnamon pie crust sticks

Cinnamon pie crust sticks all ready to bake

Stir together the sugar and ground cinnamon and sprinkle the combo over each strip of dough. Bake for 10 minutes, until slightly puffed and golden around the edges. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the sticks to cool slightly on the pan before moving them to wire cooling racks.

As the first batch is cooling, repeat the above steps with the second pie crust. Cool completely on wire racks and then store in airtight containers.

uncooked lime-marinated swordfish kebabs

Grilling Lime-Marinated Swordfish Kebabs

uncooked lime-marinated swordfish kebabs

Lime-marinated swordfish kebabs threaded and ready to be grilled.

Want a quick, crowd pleasing seafood dish for your next summer cookout? Try lime-marinated swordfish kebabs.

Officially, I created this recipe for my seafood cookbook Fish Market (Running Press, 2013) but I’ve made variations of it for years. Lime appears often in my seafood cooking. I love the slightly sweet, clean flavor of this citrus and how it adds complexity and life to fish and shellfish. That dash of green zest on a white-hued fish isn’t bad, either.

When I can’t find sustainable, North Atlantic handline or harpoon-caught swordfish, I substitute another firm, white fish. That can be anything from Pacific yellowfin or longtail tuna and mackerel to U.S-sourced snapper, mahi mahi and striped bass. When making this and any other seafood dish, I consult Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to ensure that I use sustainable fish.

grilling swordfish kebabs

Swordfish kebabs on a hot, foil-covered grill

Because I’m always a little concerned about losing chunks of my fish kebabs to a scorching hot grate, I lay these skewers on lightly oiled tin foil before placing them on the grill. If you’re not the worrying type or your grates are seasoned enough that fish slides right off, feel free to skip the foil. Either way, you’ll end up with a quick, delicious dish that’s sure to satisfy.

From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013)
Serves 4

Grated zest of 2 limes
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
1 1/2 pounds swordfish steaks, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes

In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the zest, juice, oil, salt, and pepper. Place the swordfish cubes in the marinade and toss to coat. Refrigerate the fish for 1 hour. If using wooden or bamboo skewers, soak them in water for 30 minutes.
Preheat your grill on high.

Thread the fish onto skewers and lay the kebabs either directly on or on a sheet of tin foil placed on the preheated grill. Grill until just cooked through, about 5 minutes, brushing the marinade over the kebabs as they cook and turning so that they cook evenly. Serve on or off the skewers.

slice of peanut butter pie

Perfecting Peanut Butter Pie

slice of peanut butter pie

A slice of creamy peanut butter pie

Growing up outside of Pittsburgh, I always assumed that peanut butter pie came from my part of the country. Every picnic my family attended and almost every restaurant where we ate offered a version of this rich sweet. Some bakers made it with a classic pie dough. They spooned the no-bake filling into the crisp crust and served the dessert at room temperature. Others lined their pie pans with graham cracker, shortbread or Oreo cookie crumbs, added the peanut butter mixture and refrigerated or froze the pie before serving. Each type—crunchy yet velvety or crumbly, hard and cold—had its diehard fans.

The variations didn’t end with crust and consistency. Toppings ranged from chopped peanuts, shaved chocolate, cocoa powder or more cookie crumbs to whipped cream, chocolate glazes, or, my least favorites, overly sugary caramel, banana or strawberry sauces. No matter what differences existed, people gobbled up this dessert.

Decorating with chocolate sauce.

Decorating the pie with chocolate sauce

In spite of my home turf’s love of this pie, Western Pennsylvanians cannot claim it as one of their own. Peanut butter pie has its roots in the American South where both peanuts and pies thrive. Even so, the best that I ever ate was not in the South but in Bedford, Pa. Located two hours southeast of Pittsburgh, Bedford is home to the 18th century Jean Bonnet Tavern and the most extraordinary peanut butter pie.

Jean Bonnet Tavern menu

Jean Bonnet Tavern

I came across this pie on a recent road trip to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob and Fallingwater. Tired and hungry, my friends and I stopped in Bedford for dinner and a wisely chosen dessert at Jean Bonnet Tavern. That dessert was a slice of peanut butter pie accompanied by four forks.

What made the pie so delightful was its smooth, silky texture. This is achieved by folding whipped cream into the peanut butter filling. How do I know that? Because our server provided us with typed copies of the restaurant’s recipe for peanut butter pie. Since it would be greedy of me not share this treat, I’ve included the original Jean Bonnet Tavern recipe and just a minor tweak, which I’ve noted below.

Folding whipped cream into the peanut butter-cream cheese filling

Folding whipped cream into the peanut butter-cream cheese mixture makes for an especially light filling.

Recipe from Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford, PA
Serves 8 to 10

Because I prefer a thicker topping, I halved the amount of heavy cream (from 2/3 to 1/3 cup) and increased the amount of chocolate (from 2 to 3 ounces) listed in the original recipe. If you like a soupier consistency, use 2/3 cup heavy cream and only 2 ounces of chocolate in the topping.

for the crust:
1 1/3 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup sugar
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

for the filling:
12 ounces cream cheese
1 1/2 cups creamy peanut butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup heavy cream

for the topping:
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large bowl stir together the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter until well combined. Spoon roughly half of the graham cracker crust into a 9-inch pie pan. Using your fingers, evenly press the crumbs into the pan. Repeat with the remaining crumbs.

Forming the graham cracker crust.

Pressing the graham cracker crumbs into the pie pan.

Place the crust in the oven and bake for 8 minutes, until the crust is beginning to brown slightly. Remove the crust and allow it to cool to room temperature.

While the crust cools, make the filling. Using an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until fluffy. Add the peanut butter and sugar and beat again until smooth and well-combined. Set aside.

Ingredients of the peanut butter pie filling.

Whipped cream and cream cheese-peanut butter will combine to make the peanut butter pie filling.

In a separate bowl beat the heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the whipped cream into the peanut butter-cream cheese mixture. When finished, you will have a light, creamy filling. Spoon this into the pie crust. Refrigerate the pie for a minimum of 4 hours.

About 30 minutes before serving the pie, make the chocolate sauce. Place the cream, butter, chopped chocolate, sugar and salt in either a small saucepan or microwave-safe bowl. If using a stovetop, simmer the ingredients together over medium-low, stirring frequently, until the chocolate has melted and the ingredients are blended together. If using a microwave, heat the ingredients for 30 to 60 seconds, stirring frequently, until the chocolate has melted and the ingredients are blended together. Cool the sauce to room temperature before spreading or piping onto the chilled pie.

peach puff

Got puff pastry and peaches? You’ve got dessert!

peach puff

Nope, it’s not a sunny side up egg. It’s a peach puff!

It’s probably no surprise that a lot of my recipe ideas come from travel. Unusual ingredients that I’ve tasted, signature dishes that I’ve tried and local recipes that I’ve acquired all influence my cooking. Although I gravitate to far flung locations, I do find inspiration closer to home. A perfect example is this spring’s obsession with puff pastry and stone fruit.

A few Saturdays ago I went to Philadelphia to meet up with an old friend. Since I’d done something extraordinary and actually arrived early, I popped into a little bakery selling pastries and a small assortment of breads. What better place to kill time than in a food shop? While the almond croissants and pain au raisins looked lovely, what caught my eye were the “apricot boats,” glistening ovals of puff pastry topped with halved apricots and pearl sugar. So simple. So elegant. Why didn’t I ever think of doing that?

apricot pastry

The inspiration, a bakery-bought apricot boat

Anything that easy and enticing I had to make. First, though, I should have a taste. So, with a box of apricot boats in hand I set off to catch up with my friend and sample this sweet. Our verdict? It was about as uncomplicated and delicious as a pastry could get.

On the ride home I mulled over apricot boats. I had puff pastry in the freezer and pearl sugar in my pantry. All that I needed was six ripe apricots and I could replicate this treat.

Because I couldn’t find fresh apricots at my local markets, I cheated and used canned halved peaches instead. As I discovered, any stone fruit, fresh or canned, works in this recipe. Just grab some puff pastry and some peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines or even cherries and start baking.

Makes 12 to 16 pastries

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Flour, for dusting the work surface
2 sheets puff pastry, defrosted
12 to 16 peach halves, canned or fresh
Pearl sugar, optional, for decorating

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Place the water and sugar in a small saucepan and simmer over medium heat until all the sugar has dissolved. (Note that, if you are using fresh peaches, you will want to add the peach halves to the saucepan and allow them to simmer in the simple syrup until softened, 2 to 4 minutes, spooning the syrup over the halves as they cook.) Remove the pan of simple syrup from the heat and set aside.

Dust a clean work surface with flour. Place one sheet of puff pastry on the work surface and, using a flour-dusted rolling pin, roll out the pastry until it’s approximately 11″ x 15″ in size.

Cutting puff pastry with a 3-inch biscuit cutter

Cutting puff pastry with a 3-inch biscuit cutter to make peach puffs.

Using a 3-inch scalloped, round or oval biscuit cutter, cut out 6 to 8 puffs. Place each on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Roll out the other sheet of puff pastry and cut out 6 to 8 more puffs, putting them on the other sheet. Place the pastries in the oven and bake for 5 minutes, until they’ve started to rise. Remove the puffs from the oven and allow to cool slightly.

Partially baked puffs

Partially baked puffs, ready to be topped with peaches

While the puffs are cooling, drain off the liquid from the peaches and set the peach halves aside. Note that, if you’ve simmered fresh peaches in simple syrup, reserve the syrup. If using canned peaches, you can discard the canning juices.

Using a pastry or basting brush, brush the partially baked puffs with simple syrup. Place a peach half in the center of each puff and generously coat the fruit with simple syrup. If using pearl sugar, sprinkle it on the edges of the pastry. Return the baking sheets to the oven and bake for 5 to 7 minutes, until the pastries have turned golden in color. Remove the peach puffs from the oven and cool completely before serving.

jam-filled plunderhörnchen

Is it a doughnut? A croissant? No, it’s a plunderhörnchen!

jam-filled plunderhörnchen

Break open a plunderhörnchen and you’ll find a dab of jam inside!

Plunderhörnchen or, to quote several German baking websites, “plunder croissant” or “plunder squirrel.” What better name for a treat that’s shaped like a croissant, glazed like a doughnut, tender like a roll, baked like bread and jam-filled like a croissant-shaped, doughnut-bread-roll.

I would love to share a fascinating origin story for plunderhörnchen. However, all I have are basic facts. In Germany and Austria plunder is a yeast-leavened dough used in sweet baked goods. Unlike croissant dough, plunder contains eggs. It also has less fat in it than other pastry doughs.

bakery case with plunderhornchen on display

A bakery case filled with plunderhörnchen and other sweets.

As for the designation “plunderhörnchen,” like whoopie pies, snickerdoodles and other unusually named treats, it remains a mystery. So, too, does the reason for calling it a ‘squirrel.’ What’s not a mystery is why I came across it so often while traveling in Germany. This pastry is light, portable, convenient and delicious. You can take it on the train, munch on it as you walk and never worry about crumbs, greasy fingers or sticky frosting.

Citron-studded icing

Filled with apricot jam and covered with a citron glaze

As with doughnuts, people generally eat this roll at breakfast. With its airy, bread-like consistency, mild jam filling and delicate icing, it offers a satisfying but not overly sweet or filling start to the day. For the same reasons it makes a pleasant snack or coffee time treat.

Similar to doughnut and croissants, plunderhörnchen tastes best when eaten fresh. As if there’s any other way to enjoy a homemade baked good.

Makes 10 to 12 rolls

for the dough:
1 1/8 teaspoons dry active yeast
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons milk, warmed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg, at room temperature
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

for the filling:
1/4 cup mixed berry or other fruit jam

for the glaze:
1 1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1 to 2 tablespoons water

Place the yeast, sugar and milk in a small bowl and allow the yeast and sugar to dissolve, 3 to 5 minutes. While you wait, whisk together the egg and melted butter.

Stir the flour and salt together in a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the egg and milk mixtures. Stir the ingredients together until a rough dough has formed. At this point you will either place the dough on a flour-covered work surface and knead by hand for about 10 minutes or place the dough in the bowl of a stand mixer and, using a dough hook, knead the dough until a smooth, soft dough takes shape, 5 to 6 minutes.

Once the dough has reached the desired smooth consistency, place it in a bowl, cover it with a clean dishtowel and allow it to rest and rise for 1 hour in a warm, draft-free spot.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Cutting triangle shapes

Cutting triangles out of the dough

After an hour uncover and punch down the dough. Place it on a lightly floured work surface and, using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough until it’s a large rectangle roughly 1/8-inch thick. With a sharp knife cut the dough in half horizontally. Using your knife, cut 5 or 6 isosceles triangles (two sides the same size, one side a little longer) on the top half of the dough. Repeat with the bottom half.

Rolling up the dough

Rolling up the dough

If your triangles look too thick or small, roll them out again. Otherwise, center and place 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of jam toward the top of the triangle. Roll the long edge over once on itself and then over the blob of jam. Keep rolling until you reach the triangle’s point. Tuck the point beneath the roll and place the pastry, point-side down, on the lined baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining cut dough.

Cover the baking sheets with clean dishtowels and allow the plunderhörnchens to rest for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the rolls are golden in color. Remove the pans from oven and place the rolls on a wire rack. Cool completely before applying the glaze.

To ice the pastries, mix together the confectioner’s sugar and 1 tablespoon water; if the glaze seems too thick, add the remaining water. Brush the glaze over the top and allow it to harden slightly. Enjoy on the go or with a cup of coffee, tea or milk.

ven pongal

South Indian Ven Pongal. It’s Not Just for Breakfast.

ven pongal

A plate of cashew-studded ven pongal

I always feel a little sheepish about discussing Indian foods. Obviously, I am not Indian nor do I have a long, rich history with this cuisine. Until a 2009 trip to Delhi and Rajasthan, my understanding came from the cookbooks of Madhur Jaffrey and local Indian restaurants. What I lack in background, though, I make up for with my passion for the country and its diverse, vegetarian-friendly cooking. Whenever I try an intriguing, new dish there, one that I may not find back in the States, I track down the recipe so that I can make it on my own. The latest of these at-home recreations is South Indian ven pongal.

pot of ven pongal

Big pot of ven pongal on the morning breakfast buffet table

During a recent trip to Chennai Air India had offered a scoop of ven pongal as part of my in-flight, vegetarian meal. The hotel where I stayed also served it as part of its breakfast buffet. After trying and liking it on the plane, I made a beeline for it at the buffet table. For the next eight mornings I skipped the glazed, fruit-filled pastries and pancakes and ate this hot, savory dish instead. Me skip sweets? That alone should tell you how good ven pongal is.

Moong dal in a pan

Moong dal or split yellow mung beans toasting in a pan.

Ven pongal begins with rice and split yellow mung beans or moong dal. The two are boiled together until soft and then mashed with a spoon until smooth. Generally, Indian cooks use pressure cookers to prepare the rice and dal. Since I don’t own a pressure cooker, I put the rice, dal and water in a heavy bottomed pot and bring the ingredients to a boil over high heat. Once the water has boiled, I clamp on a lid, reduce the heat to medium and let the ingredients simmer away until all the water has been absorbed. The pot method takes a bit longer but the result will be the same. Plus, you don’t have to buy and store another piece of kitchen equipment.

Mashing the cooked rice and moong dal

A pot of cooked rice and moong dal

In South India ven pongal is considered a breakfast dish. Because of its hearty consistency, I’ve begun to use it as a side dish as well. Its nutty, mildly garlicky flavor goes beautifully with fish and shellfish. Its complex flavor and abundance of protein also make it a pleasant main course.

The ingredients in ven pongal are fairly straightforward. With the exception of ghee and asofoetida powder, you should be able to find all at your local supermarket. If you can’t locate ghee, substitute clarified butter. As for asofoetida, this spice appears frequently in Indian recipes. Derived from fennel, it adds a mellow, garlic flavor to foods. If you don’t have an Asian market near you, replace the asofoetida with garlic powder. If you do go with garlic powder, I’d suggest increasing the amount to 1/4 teaspoon in the following recipe.

Ven  pongal on a plate

Tucking into a plate of ven pongal for lunch.

Serves 4

1/3 cup moong dal
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons white rice
3 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted, divided
1/8 teaspoon asofoetida powder
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed lightly with the back of a spoon
12 to 14 whole cashews

In a small frying pan over medium heat toast the moong dal until it releases its aromas, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Place the dal and rice in a colander. Rinse under cold running water and drain thoroughly.

Place the cumin seeds in the frying pan and toast over medium heat for about 1 minute, until the aromas are released. Remove from heat and place half of the seeds in a large, heavy bottomed pan.

Add the rice, dal, water, asofoetida, ginger and salt to the pan and bring the ingredients to a boil over high heat. Once the water has begun to boil, place a tight fitting lid on the pot, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 16 to 20 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed and the rice and dal are very soft. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside, leaving the lid on the mixture.

Heat the olive oil and ghee in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the remaining cumin seeds, peppercorns and cashews and cook for 1 minute.

ven pongal

Ven pongal in a frying pan

Using a spoon or spatula, mash the rice and dal together until smooth. Add the mixture to the frying pan and stir together until well combined. Serve warm.

giant cast iron pan holding sauteed mushrooms

The Sautéed Mushrooms of Poland and Germany

giant cast iron pan holding sauteed mushrooms

The enormous cast iron pans used to sauté mushrooms and other foods in Krakow, Poland

Food is always on my mind but never more so than when I’m traveling. What local specialties can I try? What cool ingredients can I track down? What can I eat that won’t kill me or make me insanely ill? (It took only one meal in Delhi, after which I had an emergency doctor’s visit, IV drip and 3 days bedridden, to add that question to my list.) Since I’m a pescetarian, I also wonder whether I can order dishes without meat. On a recent trip to the meat-loving lands of Poland and Saxony Germany I found that last criteria surprisingly easy to meet. Along with bratwurst, kielbasa, pork knuckle and hunter’s stew, restaurants, bars and food stalls served sautéed mushrooms.

pan of sautéed mushrooms

Sautéed mushrooms, ready to be served in Wrocław, Poland

Since at least the Middle Ages mushrooms have played a part in Poland’s cuisine. In the past people went out into the surrounding forests and gathered as many edible mushrooms as they could find. Once at home they brushed them off and started cooking. Mushrooms made their way into soups, sauces, dumplings and stuffed cabbage. They were paired with meats and fish or served on their own.

Centuries may have passed but the passion for mushrooms remains. Along with the above dishes they appear in Polish pierogies and the pizza-like zapiekanki and across the border in German rye bread bowls.

sautéed mushrooms served in a bread bowl

Mushrooms and garlic-dill-sour cream-sauce in a rye bread bowl in Dresden, Germany

On this recent trip I usually went for a simple plate or bowl of sautéed mushrooms. That might sound a bit dull but every town and holiday market had a different approach on how to cook mushrooms. In Krakow they were simmered in a broth of water, onion powder, salt and dried dill or fried in butter alongside minced onions. In Dresden, Germany they were sautéed in oil with salt and pepper and then topped with a garlic-dill-sour cream sauce. Meanwhile, cooks in the German border town of Görlitz added paprika, ground mustard, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and pepper to their mixtures. The results were all amazing.

sautéed mushrooms from Gorlitz, Germany

Mushrooms sautéed “Görlitz-style” in Görlitz, Germany

Although I gorged on mushrooms for two weeks, as soon as I returned home, I set out to recreate my favorite sautés. Eventually I landed upon a combination of several recipes, the result of which is below.

To make this a vegetarian offering, replace the butter with olive oil.
Serves 4

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/4 cup minced onion
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
9.5 ounces white mushrooms, cleaned and halved
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon granulated onion
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons water, or more as needed

In a large frying pan melt half the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and half of the salt and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until the onion has softened but is not browning.

Add the mushrooms, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder and 2 tablespoons water. Stirring periodically, cook until the mushrooms have softened and released some of their juices, about 10 minutes. If the pan and mushrooms become too dry, add more water. You want a small amount of sauce in the pan but you do not want a soupy mixture.

Mushrooms almost finished cooking

Sautéed mushrooms with a smidgen of sauce, about ready to be removed from the pan.

Once the mushrooms have softened and browned slightly, remove the pan from the heat. Place the mushrooms in a large bowl or on individual plates. Serve warm.

2016’s Books for Cooks

this year's selection of books for cooks

2016’s selection of books for cooks

Yes, I’m squeezing in my seasonal list of books for cooks at the very last minute. This year I’ve got suggestions for readers, history lovers, bakers, spice fans, travel buffs and, of course, cooks. You won’t see any titles by social media darlings or celebrity chefs—if you read Kitchen Kat, you probably already know how to scramble an egg and you probably aren’t going to serve stuffed, roasted goat hearts at your next family gathering—but you will find a wealth of information, solid recipes and great gifts in this mix.

Waste Free Kitchen Handbook by Dana Gunders (Chronicle Books, 2015)
A scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Gunders offers tips for shopping smarter, eating more of what we purchase and throwing away less food. She also provides recipes for making the most of what we have on hand; this includes dishes such as Sautéed Lettuce and Broccoli Stalk Salad. My favorite sections don’t include recipes but instead focus on portion planning, food storage and uses for leftovers and food scraps. Spend less, waste less and buy and eat more consciously with the Waste Free Kitchen Handbook.

Scandinavian Baking by Trine Hahnemann (Quadrille, 2015)
Broken into three parts—sweet treats such as cakes, cookies and pastries, breads and savory tarts and “Midsummer Cake Party”—Scandinavian Baking presents a modern take on Scandinavian baked goods. Danish chef and food writer Hahnemann guides readers through over 100 recipes for such specialties as jam danishes, spiced buns and meringue-topped rhubarb cake. Anecdotes and color photographs enliven this charming cookbook.

Ingredienti by Marcella Hazan and Victor Hazan (Scribner, 2016)
I always think of Marcella Hazan as Italy’s Julia Child; she made authentic Italian cooking approachable for the American home cook. In Ingredienti Victor Hazan presents his late wife’s thoughts on the essential ingredients of Italian cooking. Translated from Marcella’s notebooks, this small but thorough tome discusses everything from artichokes and zucchini to cured meats and olive oil. How to select, store, clean, prepare and pair each ingredient is likewise covered. Engaging and informative, this lovely book would please both readers and cooks.

Far Afield by Shane Mitchell (Ten Speed Press, 2016)
In Far Afield Mitchell presents his culinary travel experiences alongside the dramatic photos of James Fisher. Forty recipes for such region-specific dishes as Hawaiian Pineapple Pie and Mexican Black Beans are scattered throughout the book. Possessing the tag line “rare food encounters from around the world,” this is the book that I would like to write. It’s also the book that I would give to photography lovers, travelers, readers and curious cooks.

The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson (Phaidon, 2015)
If you’ve ever wondered how to make your own gravlax or what lingonberries are or are just curious about the history and cuisine of Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway or Sweden, you’ll want to pick up Nilsson’s magnum opus on Nordic cooking. With over 700 recipes and a wealth of color photos his weighty book offers unique insights into the culinary history, ingredients and techniques of the Nordic region. You can use The Nordic Cookbook as a guide to Nordic life, a cookbook for the region’s cuisines or a fascinating history of food and drink in these Northern European lands.

The Book of Spice by John O’Connell (Pegasus Books, 2016)
If you or someone on your holiday list has an interest in the history, impact and uses of spices, O’Connell’s The Book of Spice is the book to buy. O’Connell devotes the final chapter to spice blends and describes what goes into such mixtures as green and red curry pastes and apple pie mix. It’s a useful resource for cooks and an entertaining book for readers and history buffs. Please note that, like Hazan’s Ingredienti, recipes are not included.

The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches by Susan Russo (Quirk Books, 2010)
I’m always on the lookout for quirky but worthwhile food books like Susan Russo’s The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches. This compact cookbook serves up history, trivia and recipes for sandwiches from around the globe. American favorites such as grilled cheese, egg salad sandwiches and BLTs go head-to-head with regional specialities such as West Virginia’s fried baloney, New Orlean’s muffuletta and New England’s lobster roll. Recipes for such country-specific sandwiches as Mexico’s tortas, Cuba’s cubanos and England’s chip butty are among the gems on offer. This is a fantastic book for any cook. After all, who doesn’t love a good, homemade sandwich?

Oyster by Drew Smith (Abrams, 2015)
With Oyster readers learn the long, rich history of oysters and how these bivalves influenced art, literature, cooking and commerce throughout the centuries. In Oyster cooks and seafood fans receive 50 classic and contemporary recipes and practical tips. Featuring color illustrations and photographs, Smith’s hardcover is pretty enough to be a coffee table book yet practical and informative enough to be valuable for all cooks.

Bake: Essential Companion by Alison Thompson (Tuttle Publishing, 2015)
Here’s another treat for both new and accomplished bakers. In Bake Australian pastry chef and author Alison Thompson delivers 200 recipes for and lessons in making yeast breads, pastries, croissants muffins, scones, cookies, cakes and gluten-free goodies. A few Australian specialities, such as Lamingtons, pavlovas and Anzacs, also grace the pages of this approachable cookbook.

Thai Food by David Thompson (Ten Speed Press, 2002)
Chef, food writer and restaurateur David Thompson spent 10 years working on Thai Food and it shows. This 673-page cookbook carefully details the culture, traditional recipes, ingredients and techniques of Thai cooking. Recognizable dishes such as red and green curries, crispy noodles and green papaya salad appear alongside less familiar but equally traditional foods such as prawns simmered in caramel and sugar cane, mangosteen and mussel curry and “golden teardrops.” Fascinating headnotes and illustrative photos appear throughout the book. If you or your gift recipients love cooking and eating Thai, then David Thompson’s exhaustive Thai Food is a must.

The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning by Wendy Trusler and Carol Devine (Harper Design, 2015)
One part travel journal, one part history, one part report on the civilian clean-up of Antarctica and one part cookbook, The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning immerses readers in polar life. As someone long fascinated with Antarctica, I devoured the stories, photos and menus shared by Trusler and Devine. I also appreciated the 40 or so straightforward recipes such as Spiced Tea, White Bean and Garlic Soup and Fruit Nut Rings. Whether you share my interest in this continent or just like reading about food, travel, the environment, politics or history, you will enjoy this rare and thoughtful book.

gluten-free cinnamon stars

Tips for Cut-Out Cookies and Austrian Cinnamon Stars

gluten-free cinnamon stars

Gluten-free homemade cinnamon stars and circles make festive cut-out cookies./

Whenever I make the gluten-free, cut-out cookies Austrian Cinnamon Stars, I think of my late father. Although he was neither an ardent cook nor baker, every holiday season he and I spent at least one night in the kitchen baking and decorating cut-out Christmas cookies. The tricks he employed to ensure beautiful holiday sweets are ones that I use to this day.

If making the aforementioned Austrian cinnamon stars and any other cut-out cookies possessing a soft, sticky texture, I refrigerate the dough for at least 30 minutes before rolling it out. After mixing the ingredients for the cookie dough, I shape it into a ball, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes. Depending on the size and tackiness of the dough, it may need to stay in the fridge for a little longer or shorter. No matter what, it shouldn’t get cold and stiff. If it reaches that stage, it’ll be difficult to roll and cut.

soft, rich, sticky dough

A soft, rich and sticky dough should be chilled before being rolled out.

Another trick that my father taught me was that, to stop cookie dough from sticking to the rolling pin, use a piece of parchment or wax paper as my work surface and, in the case of Austrian cinnamon stars, dust confectioner’s sugar over it. Plop the dough in the center of the work surface, sprinkle more confectioner’s sugar — or flour, if making other cookies — over the top and place another piece of parchment or wax paper on top of that. Roll out the dough to the desired thickness. Once that’s accomplished, chill it slightly before cutting out the cookies. Note that the rolled out dough stays between the papers until it’s ready to be cut.

An assortment of cookie cutters

An assortment of cookie cutters

One problem that my dad and I encountered early on in our annual baking stint was getting a perfectly shaped cookie safely onto the baking sheet. Perhaps it was the meticulous engineer or hobbyist woodworker in him but my father would painstakingly run a sharp paring knife around the cookie cutter before lifting it from the dough. He would then do the same around the interior of the cutter, loosening the dough from the form. A slight tap on the side or top of the cutter and the cookie fell gently onto the greased baking sheet. This took time and perseverance but our snowmen, Santas and candy canes were all uniform in size and shape.

Since I lack my late father’s patience and precision, I use a different trick, one that he might appreciate. I keep my tools clean and cool. Before cutting out cookies, I run my cutters under cold water. After drying, they’re ready to go. If any dough starts to collect around the rims, I wash them under cold, running water again. I follow this practice not only for Austrian cinnamon stars but also for any other cut-out cookie that I make.

I mentioned Austrian cinnamon stars in an earlier post on what to eat at European Christmas markets. Known in Austria as zimtsterne, these star-shaped, cut-out cookies contain ground almonds, cinnamon, egg whites, confectioner’s and cherry liqueur. They are a lovely sweet and a perfect way to employ all of my father’s techniques.


Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies

2 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted, plus more for dusting
2 cups ground almonds
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons kirsch
Pinch nutmeg
Pinch salt

In medium bowl beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Once you have soft peaks, slowly add the confectioner’s sugar, beating with each addition until the mixture is smooth and glossy.

Spoon out 1/3 cup of sugary egg whites, place in another bowl and set aside. You will use this later to ice your cookies.

Fold the almonds, cinnamon, kirsch, nutmeg and salt into the remaining . When the ingredients are fully incorporated, you will have a sticky dough. Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a minimum of 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Dust a clean work surface with confectioner’s sugar.

Place the dough on the dusted work surface. Sprinkle more confectioner’s sugar on top of the dough to make it less sticky.

Lay a large piece of parchment paper over the sugar-dusted dough. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to about 1/4-inch thickness.

Remove the parchment paper. Using a star-shaped cookie cutter, cut out the cookies and place them on the parchment-lined baking sheets. If at any point the cookie cutter becomes caked in dough, rinse it off under cold, running water.

Spread a thin layer of leftover meringue over each cookie. If the meringue icing has hardened and is difficult to spread, add a drop or two of water to the mixture and stir until well combined. Continue spreading over the cookies until all the stars are iced.

Bake the cookies for 10 to 13 minutes or until the icing has set but has not begun to brown. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow them to cool for 5 minutes. Remove them from the baking sheets and cool completely on wire racks before storing in airtight containers.

What to Eat at European Christmas Markets

Prague's European Christmas Markets

View of Old Town Prague’s Christmas Market as seen from Old Town Hall Tower

My mother used to claim that I inherited my wanderlust from her late father, a civil and mining engineer who worked and traveled throughout Latin America. If he was to blame for my “itchy feet,” that unceasing desire to roam the globe, then she bore responsibility for my passion for European Christmas markets. As a kid, I spent countless Saturdays following her through crowded church Christmas bazaars. Which faith sponsored the event never mattered. As long as it featured homemade pizzelles, kolaches, stollen or fruitcake, we’d be there.

A curious kid, I wondered how my hometown’s holiday bazaars stacked up against those in people’s homelands. If I visited Germany’s Striezelmarkt, would ladies jostle and push for the last few loaves of nut-studded stollen? If I went to Poland, would people nibble on onion- and potato-filled pierogis as they shopped? What did people eat at European Christmas markets? For that matter, did they even have these seasonal fairs?

loaves of fruit bread

It’s everyone’s favorite, “fruit loaf!”

Turns out that Europe is chocked full of cheery, outdoor, holiday markets. Along with decorations, crafts and jewelry, they invariably have at least one stall dedicated to traditional Advent pastries and breads. Dresden, Germany goes so far as to hold a parade and slicing ceremony in honor of its signature bread, stollen. While most cities don’t go to this extent, all feature fruit-, nut- and spice-laced baked goods.

Mulled wine at Vienna's Stephensplatz Christmas market

Drinking mulled wine from a ceramic boot at Vienna, Austria’s Stephensplatz Christmas market

While I only remember hot chocolate, coffee and apple cider at those church bazaars, European Christmas markets feature a far more festive drink, mulled wine. Depending on what country you visit, look for glühwein (Germanic language countries), vin chaud (French-speaking lands), glogg (Nordic regions) or jolly groups of shoppers sipping from steaming ceramic mugs. It’s a great way to warm up on a blustery day or night!

Bags of chestnuts at a European Christmas market

Chestnuts waiting to be roasted in Cologne, Germany

Before a December trip to France I had always thought of chestnuts and “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” as the stuff of romantic tales. Boy, was I ever wrong. Nothing says “winter in Europe” like the sweet, smoky smell of roasted chestnuts. No matter where you go in Europe, you can wander into a town square and find chestnuts cooking in a pan over an open flame.

Belgian waffles in Antwerp, Belgium

Waiting for fresh, hot Belgian waffles, Liege-style, in Antwerp, Belgium

High on my list of market treats is a fresh, hot Belgian waffle. Firmer, sweeter and more substantial than an American-style waffle, it comes in two varieties, Brussels and Liege. I’m partial to the denser Liege but you will usually find both on offer. To fully enjoy the flavor, skip the ice cream and sauces and order it with just a sprinkling of sugar on top.

Austrian cinnamon stars

Austrian cinnamon stars , or zimtsterne, in Vienna

A jewel box of a city, Vienna, Austria sparkles at Christmastime. The twinkling lights, the elegant architecture, the cinnamon stars. Yes, cinnamon stars. A holiday specialty, these small, iced cookies consist of ground almonds, cinnamon, egg whites and the German cherry liqueur kirsch. Delicious to eat straight from the bag, they can also be boxed and given as gifts during the holiday season.

German potato pancakes

Frying up potato pancakes in Berlin, Germany

For those rare times when I’ve had my fill of cookies, waffles, chestnuts, candy and drinks, I might order German potato pancakes or Czech potato spirals. Granted, they’re fried in hot oil but it’s the holidays and I’ve already consumed half my weight in sweets. I might as well indulge a little more. As for that other Western Pennsylvania favorite pierogis, while I didn’t come across them in the Czech Republic, I may encounter them in Poland later this month. I’ll keep you posted.

Potato spirals

Potato spirals in Prague, Czech Republic