Friday, December 28, 2007

Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies

“An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread...”
William Shakespeare
Love’s Labours Lost (Act V, Scene 1)

These are the best holiday cookies I have ever eaten. I hate to admit it, but the recipe is adapted from Martha Stewart. Once you taste these, you will understand why they are only the second adapted recipe I have featured on this site. The unbaked dough is divine, and can be eaten straight from the bowl or mixed with vanilla ice cream for a decadent dessert.

Gingerbread was first created in pre-Christian Europe to celebrate the Winter solstice. After the Crusades, Catholic monks began to bake gingerbread for special religious celebrations. In medieval times, gingerbread became associated with secular festivals, which came to be known as ‘gingerbread fairs’. Early bakers produced motifs inspired by daily life. In the seventeeth and eighteenth century, themes expanded to include nobility, floral and geometric designs.

In Medieval England the term gingerbread meant 'preserved ginger', and was adopted from the old French gingebras, which came from the Latin zingebar. Today gingerbread takes many variations – from crispy biscuit to dense cake. This chewy cookie falls somewhere between the two, with a healthy dose of chocolate.

Makes 24 cookies

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon cocoa
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1-2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated (not chopped)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup molasses
1 teaspoon baking soda
8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks
granulated sugar

1. In a medium bowl mix flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cocoa. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl beat butter and ginger. Add brown sugar and beat well; then add molasses and beat well.
3. In a cup dissolve baking soda in 2 teaspoons of boiling water.
4. Beat half of the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Add the dissolved baking soda. Then add the remaining dry ingredients and beat well.
5. Fold chocolate chips or chunks into the dough.
6. Pat dough into a circle about 1 inch thick and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 1 hour or until the dough has hardened.
7. Roll into 1 inch balls and chill for a further 30 minutes (see photo above). Since the dough does not contain egg, these balls can be kept in the fridge for several days or frozen for later use.
8. Preheat the oven to 325F.
9. To bake cookies, roll balls in granulated sugar and place 1 inch apart on a Silpat-lined baking sheet (you can use parchment paper as well).
10. Bake for 8-10 minutes and allow to cool for 5-10 minutes. If the cookie bottoms are burned and shiny, reduce the oven temperature to 300F and cook for 2 minutes longer. Gently transfer to a wire rack to cool to room temperature.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Turkey Lasagna Al Forno

Those of you who are chronic recipe surfers are probably inundated with gingerbread, egg nog and turkey recipes at this time of year. Despite all the food at holiday parties, in office corridors and under the tree, there is no substitute for hearty sustenance during the festive season. This lasagna is an ideal feed-a-crowd recipe, especially if you have houseguests at this busy time of year. Given the turkey sausage in this lasagna, it could even be a substitute for a traditional Christmas roast turkey or ham.

I created this recipe for a book club that my boyfriend hosted earlier this week. You can prepare it several days in advance, store in the refrigerator and bake before serving. Alternately, you can freeze it up to one month and thaw overnight before baking.

You may be surprised to know that the word lasagna traces its origins to lasanon, the Greek word for chamber pot. The term was adopted by Romans as lasanum, to refer to the cooking pot in which lasagna was originally made. The Italians have vigorously denied recent claims that lasagna originated in England, in the court of King Richard II. Regardless of its genesis, it has become a staple in North America, Europe, Australia and Ethiopia.

Serves 8

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1 cup finely chopped carrots (optional)
1 1/4 pounds spicy turkey or chicken sausages, casings removed
26 ounces (1 jar) spicy tomato-based pasta sauce (Arrabiata sauce is ideal)

30 ounces partially skimmed ricotta cheese
10 ounces frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
1 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese, grated
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Other Ingredients
1 to 1 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese, grated
9 uncooked lasagna noodles (regular or no cook)
12 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated

1. Boil lasagna noodles according to instructions on package. Drain hot water and fill with cold water. Leave the noodles in cold water until ready to use. You do not need to boil the noodles for this recipe, as uncooked noodles will bake through. However, it doesn’t take too much time, and might be preferable if you plan on freezing the lasagna.
2. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Sauté garlic until fragrant, and then sauté onions and chili powder for 2 minutes.
3. Add sausages and sauté for 10 minutes until brown, using a fork to break meat into chunks. Add tomato sauce and carrots and simmer 5 minutes.
4. Preheat oven to 375 F.
5. Mix ricotta, spinach, Parmesan, eggs, basil, oregano and pepper. Set aside.
6. Spread 1 cup meat sauce in the bottom of a 13x9 glass or metal baking dish. Place 3 noodles over sauce in a single layer. Top with another cup of meat sauce, followed by 1 cup of ricotta mixture. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan and 1 cup mozzarella.
7. Repeat with 3 noodles, 1 cup meat sauce, 2 cups ricotta mixture, 1/4 cup Parmesan and 1 cup mozzarella. [see second photo above]
8. Place last 3 noodles over cheese. Spread 1 cup meat sauce, 1/2 cup Parmesan and the remaining mozzarella.
9. Dollop remaining ricotta mixture on top of lasagna, and remaining meat sauce around ricotta. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan (if any). Cover tightly with foil.
10. Bake lasagna covered for 40-50 minutes. Uncover and continue baking until noodles are tender and lasagna is hot and bubbly. This will take between 20-30 minutes.
11. To bake a frozen lasagna either thaw overnight in the refrigerator and bake as above, or bake frozen lasagna for 90-100 minutes.
12. Allow lasagna to stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hanukkah Shortbread Cookies

This was my second year celebrating Hanukkah with my boyfriend’s family. The occasion involved abundant food including Laura’s lovely latkes, a plethora of driedels and menorahs, and a mountain of blue and gold wrapping paper.

Other highlights from this year: a flashing yoyo that plays the ‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel’ song, uncle Mark’s reindeer antlers hung with stars of David, and singing the Adam Sandler Hanukkah song with the whole family. As a fitting end to our Hanukkah weekend, we saw a car on the highway with a huge menorah attached to the roof. As you can see, Hanukkah is big in New York!

My modest contribution to this year’s festivities was shortbread cookies that I made in Oxford and brought over in my hand luggage. Unfortunately, a number of them broke (the stars points snapped off) but I was able to bury them in the cookie platter and I don’t think anyone noticed.

Shortbread is one of my favorite treats. As a child, I ate a lot of Walkers Shortbread during the Christmas holidays (and all year long). My cookies are not quite as decadent, but are especially delicious with frosting. Thanks to Sarah for sharing the blue colored sugar that I used on some of the cookies.

Makes 60 cookies

2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated or caster sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (optional)
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
pinch salt

1 cup confectioner’s sugar
2 drops blue food color
2 teaspoons of water
silver dragées, for garnish (optional)
colored sugar (optional)

1. Add salt to flour. Set aside.
2. Using a mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and mix well.
3. Add half the flour and incorporate using the mixer. With a wooden spoon, incorporate the remaining flour until the dough forms a soft ball.
4. Divide the dough into four parts and wrap each separately in saran wrap. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or until the dough is cool and firm.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
6. Remove one portion of dough, and on a floured surface roll to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thickness. With a cookie cutter make star shapes and place directly onto an ungreased baking sheet. If using colored sugar, sprinkle it on the cookies before baking.
7. Bake for 8-12 minutes, until the edges just begin to brown. Cool to room temperature.
8. To make frosting, mix confectioner’s sugar and 1 teaspoon of water. Slowly add more water until you reach the consistency of honey. Add floor color, one drop at a time.
9. Use a knife to spread frosting on cookies. If using dragées, place them immediately and allow the frosting to set.
10. Cookies can be kept in an airtight container for up to one week.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Traditional Apple Pie

The person who coined the term “easy as pie” must have had a difficult life. Pie is not hard, per se, but it is not easy either. Pie crust can be labor intensive unless you have a food processor or commit the mortal sin of using your hands (as I sometimes do). Apple pie is especially time consuming because it requires a lot of peeling and slicing. Don’t let this deter you, however, since there is almost nothing as attractive as a freshly baked apple pie.

As children we often ate Mrs. Smith's brand frozen apple pie which, if memory serves, was fairly good. Once in a while we would make an apple pie from scratch. Apples are plentiful in the fall and winter, which make apple pies ideal for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They are certainly more attractive than the more traditional Thanksgiving options - plain pecan pie and the downright ugly pumpkin pie. On the other hand, they do not require the advance planning necessary for fruitcake or the ridiculous labor demanded by the Bûche de Noël.

Apple pies have been popular in Europe for centuries. This English recipe dates to 1381 and calls for a mixture of apples, figs, pears, raisins, spices and saffron in a pastry casing. Apple pies only became common in the United States in the eighteenth century, and so the saying "as American as apple pie" is likely to be a patriotic myth manufactured to sell more apples.

I made this pie from apples that grew on Norham Gardens, a leafy street in North Oxford. A gardener had placed them in a crate for passersby to take away, and I never refuse natural (and free) ingredients.

Serves 8-12


2 pie crusts
1 lemon, all zest and juice
12 apples, peeled and cored
3/4 cup granulated or caster sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
pinch of cloves
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 egg (optional)

1. Place lemon zest and juice into a large bowl.
2. Peel and core the apples (cut lengthwise into eight wedges). Any kind of apple will do, but using a mixture is a good idea. Tart Granny Smith apples are ideal for pie. Coring can take a long time, so if you bake a lot invest in an apple corer. Cut wedges into slices about 1/4 inch thick and place into a large bowl, coating with lemon juice to prevent discoloration.
3. Preheat oven to 425F. Add the sugar, spices and flour and mix well.
4. Remove pie crusts from the fridge. Allow to warm slightly or they will crack during preparation. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one pie crust until it is 10-11 inches in diameter. Draping it over the rolling pin, transfer to a 9-inch pie dish.
5. Place apple mixture in the crust. Apples will reduce in volume during baking so do not worry if they appear to be piled very high. Dot with butter.

6. Roll out the other pie crust to between 11-12 inches and place on top of the pie. Trim top or bottom crust if necessary. Tuck edges under the bottom crust and crimp and flute to seal. This will prevent the juices from bubbling through during baking. Cut several 1-inch slits into the top of the pie to allow steam to escape.

7. If you have any extra scraps of dough, shape them into leaves. Score the pastry to create the leaf stem and vein. You can also create other shapes such as animals or letters. Beat the egg in a small bowl and brush it over the pie. The egg wash will impart a rich brown color during baking.
8. Place pie on a baking sheet to catch any juices and to make it easier to remove from the oven. Bake at 425F for 25 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350F and bake for another 25 minutes. Check the pie regularly to make sure it is not burning. If the top crust begins to brown too quickly, cover with aluminum foil.
9. Allow the pie to cool before serving with ice cream, whipped cream or custard. It can also be served with Cheshire or Cheddar cheese.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cayenne Pumpkin Pie

I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I had pumpkin pie for two of my meals on Monday. Breakfast was leftover sweet pumpkin pie that I had made for an American Thanksgiving celebration on Saturday night. Lunch was a savory pumpkin and poppyseed tart at Gee’s, where I dined with my friend Janet.

Pumpkin is a type of fruit indigenous to the Western hemisphere. Seeds dated as far back as 7000BC have been found in Mexico. The word has its origins in Greek as pepon (meaning "large melon"), and through adaptations in France, England and America has come to be known as pumpkin. Native Americans have long consumed pumpkin flesh and have also used its skin to weave mats.

Pumpkin pie is thought to have originated with the practice of cooking pumpkins by removing the seeds, filling them with milk and spices, and baking them in the hot ashes of a dying fire. It is now a staple of Canadian and American Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ve included cayenne in this version to provide some contrast to the sweetness of the condensed milk and spices.

Serves 8-12


1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 prepared graham cracker crust

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 can pumpkin (15 oz)
1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 oz)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 pinches cayenne


1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. If you are making a crust, mix graham cracker crumbs, sugar and melted butter. Using your hands, pat the mixture along the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie dish. I find that a metal dish works best (sometimes the crust gets stuck to a glass dish). Bake at 350 F degrees for 5 to 7 minutes and set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, combine all the filling ingredients. Pour into the piecrust.
4. Bake for 40 minutes or until set. Reduce the temperature if the pie starts to brown.
5. Serve at room temperature with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Carrot Coconut Cupcakes

This week features another childhood favorite transformed into cupcakes. My mother makes a mean carrot cake, often including crushed pineapple for added moistness, sweetness and flavor. This more traditional version is topped with a rich cream cheese frosting and crowned with a halo of shredded coconut. Not only does the coconut taste delicious, but it protects the frosting during travel, making it ideal for a party or a child's lunchbox.

Carrots have the second highest sugar content among vegetables (after sugar beets), and have been used in sweet cakes in Europe since the Middle Ages. At the time other sweeteners were too expensive or in short supply.

Wild ancestors of the carrot are likely to have come from Afghanistan. Originally carrots were grown for their aromatic seeds and leaves, similar to their relatives parsley, fennel, dill and cumin. They come in a variety of colors including white, purple, red and yellow. The orange carrot appeared in the Netherlands in the 16th century, and was popular as an emblem of the House of Orange-Nassau. This carrot was much less bitter than earlier species.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 cups shredded carrots
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped (optional)

1 pound cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups shredded coconut

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. In a large bowl mix flour, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice and salt.
3. In a medium bowl beat eggs and sugar using an electric mixer. Add the flour mixture, continuing to beat on low speed.
4. Slowly add the oil and fully incorporate into the batter. Stir in the carrots, coconut and walnuts.
5. Divide batter into muffin cups and bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool to room temperature before frosting.
6. Beat all frosting ingredients by hand. Generously frost cupcakes.
7. Spread coconut on a large plate. Dip the frosted cupcakes in the coconut, making sure to cover evenly. Cool cupcakes in the fridge for several hours or overnight. If stored in an airtight container cupcakes can be kept for up to a week.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Mini Lemon Cheesecakes

I’m actually surprised that this is the first cheesecake recipe I've posted. I was introduced to this dessert as a child. My mom made a simple, tart cheesecake with a thick graham cracker crust. She usually decorated it with canned mandarin orange slices, and I was sometimes given the task of arranging the slices in a pretty pattern.

When I came to the U.S. I discovered many more types of cheesecake. America seems to have an obsession with the dessert, though this may be fueled by Kraft’s aggressive advertising of it's Philadelphia creamcheese. The first mention of cheesecake is found in Cato the Elder's farming manual De Agri Cultura (circa 160 BC).

These mini cheesecakes are incredibly easy and ideal for parties. You can make them several days in advance and decorate them the day they are served.

Makes 12 mini cheesecakes

storebought gingersnap or ginger cookie
12 - 16 ounces cream cheese (depending on how rich you like it), at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon lemon zest (can substitute 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
2 cups sour cream or 1 cup heavy cream, whipped
cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar to taste (optional)
1 pint raspberries, blackberries, strawberries or a combination of these

1. Preheat oven to 300 F.
2. Line a 12 cup muffin pan with cupcake liners. Place a cookie in the bottom of each liner to form the cheesecake base. Make sure the cookie fits snugly, otherwise it may float to the top during baking.
3. In a medium bowl, combine cream cheese, sugar, eggs and zest. Mix well.
4. Divide batter into muffin cups and bake for 25-30 minutes or until the cheesecake is set in the middle and just turning brown.
5. Remove and allow to cool at room temperature for 1 hour. Refrigerate overnight.
6. To serve top with 2 tablespoons sour cream or whipped cream and garnish with berries. You can add cocoa powder and confectioner’s sugar to either sour cream or whipped cream for a hint of chocolate.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Orange Chocolate Mousse

My favorite dessert these days is chocolate mousse. It’s delicious, incredibly easy, no-bake, and doesn’t require a special container or pan. I made a lovely version last weekend that included orange zest (on Sarah’s suggestion). I am not generally a fan of chocolate and orange, but the result was aromatic and flavorful, and a big hit with our dinner guests.

Mousse comes from the French word for foam. Culinary historians believe that savory mousses (including meat or vegetables) first appeared in France in the 18th century; sweet ones developed towards the end of the 19th century. A traditional mousse contains eggs or gelatin, but the versions popularized in the United States and Great Britain in the 1960s often omit both. This could be attributed to the dangers of consuming raw egg, but given the popularity of tiramisu in the 1980s and 1990s, it’s probably a result of convenience.

Chocolate mousse can be served in many ways. You can chill it in a large glass bowl or in individual portions in martini glasses, ramekins, parfait glasses or dessert bowls. Don’t use wine glasses or other containers with narrow mouths, otherwise it might be difficult to extract your mousse. I have found that it is best to serve rich desserts in small portions, ensuring of course, that you have seconds in the fridge. If you serve them in large containers, your health conscious guests may leave a lot of their portion uneaten.

This orange chocolate mousse must be served with fresh whipped cream and can be topped with soft fruit (especially berries) or chocolate shavings. On the first night of our recent trip to Italy we indulged in dark chocolate mousse sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, which was an unusual and tasty combination.

Serves 8

12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
1-2 teaspoons orange zest (or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract)
4 cups whipping cream, chilled
1/4 cup granulated sugar
fruit or chocolate shavings (optional)


  1. Bring 1 cup of cream to a boil. Turn off heat and stir in chocolate and orange zest or vanilla extract. Stir occasionally until smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature.
  2. In a large bowl, beat 2 cups cream and sugar until stiff peaks form. Fold in cooled chocolate mixture.
  3. Pour into small glass bowls, ramekins or martini glasses.
  4. Refrigerate for 4-6 hours or overnight.
  5. Serve with 1 cup cream whipped to firm peaks. Garnish with berries, pomegranate seeds, orange wedges or chocolate shavings. Mousse will last 3-5 days covered and chilled.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars

When I moved to Oxford I brought many baking supplies with me, including several essential American ingredients – chocolate chips, flaked coconut and natural peanut butter. I also brought slivered almonds, pistachios, cardamom and gum arabic for Indian mithai. I also transported a few cake tins, loaf pans and a baking sheet. The other night when I had a craving for chocolate chip cookies, I was devastated to find that my baking sheet was too large for the tiny oven in my kitchen.

Not one to be easily thwarted, I decided to make chocolate chip cookie dough and bake it in a brownie pan. I concocted a fairly traditional cookie recipe, which I am sure would taste even better with coconut or toffee chips. The upside of this method is that you have only a single pan to clean.

On an entirely different note, my friend Natalie sent an email on Monday to ask if I had a pumpkin recipe to feature this week in celebration of Hallowe’en. I referred her to my Spicy Pumpkin Gingerbread which is ideal for the fall and winter. Watch this space for other pumpkin desserts (including a pumpkin cheesecake) just in time for American Thanksgiving.

2/3 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Butter and line a 9x9 inch pan with wax or parchment paper.
2. In a small bowl, mix flour and baking soda. Set aside.
3. In a medium bowl, beat butter and sugars. Add egg and vanilla and beat again.
4. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and mix well with a wooden spoon. Fold in chocolate chips.
5. Using the spoon or your fingers dipped in cold water, evenly spread the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until lightly browned - 20 minutes for super chewy bars or 25 minutes for more crisp bars.
6. During cooking the edges of the batter will bake unevenly, causing the batter to rise up at the sides. To prevent this, wrap aluminum foil around the edge of the pan so that it shields the edges of the batter. This will ensure more even baking.
7. The mixture will be quite soft when it comes out of the oven. Let it cool for an hour or two, and then cut into bars. Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Spicy Hummus

Today I present one of the staples of my kitchen – hummus. I must admit that I usually purchase this from the grocery store, although it is very easy to make. Hummus is common to the cuisines of the Middle East, though I could not find much information about its origins.

This humble spread is incredibly versatile and I eat it regularly as sandwich filling or on toast, even better with fresh or roasted vegetables. It is also great with crackers, fresh or deep-fried pita, falafel and crudités. My friends John and Andrea recently served hummus paired with cubes of feta cheese – a lovely and unusual combination that I highly recommend. And today for lunch I had a hummus and harissa sandwich - a combination suggested by my friend Sarah.

Most store-bought versions have much more oil (and calories) and less zing than this natural version. The only downside is that, without preservatives, this home-made hummus will not last beyond one week in the refrigerator. I wonder if it can be frozen?
Makes about 2 cups

16 ounces chickpeas, drained and rinsed (pictured above)
3 tablespoons tahini
1 lemon, juiced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 to 2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon cayenne or to taste
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin
about 1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon paprika, for garnish
sprig of parsley, for garnish

1. Place the first seven ingredients in a food processor or blender and process until well mixed. Add water as necessary, and add more than 1/2 cup if you prefer it to be less thick.
2. Garnish with paprika and parsley and serve at room temperature.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cinnamon Chocolate Cake

It is officially Chocolate Week in the United Kingdom. Although it's a transparent ploy by food retailers to get people to purchase even more of their goods, I succumbed to the mania and made this simple, flourless, cinnamon chocolate cake.

The word chocolate comes from the Nahuatl word xocolatl, meaning "bitter water". The Aztecs and Mayans both associated chocolate with fertility, which is not dissimilar from our current associations of chocolate with sex and love (think Valentine's Day). New research shows that the Olmecs were the first to cultivate chocolate. These cultures consumed chocolate exclusively as a drink, often mixing it with chilli, vanilla and spices. Cocoa beans were also used as currency.

Like many products from the New World, the chocolate industry flourished through colonialism and slavery. Spanish colonizers introduced chocolate as a luxury for their monarch, and it was later used by the Catholic Church and the Spanish aristocracy. It was a hundred years before chocolate became popular elsewhere in Europe.

With the invention of the cocoa press, chocolate became a good for broad consumption. It was widely produced as a powder and paste, and was noted for many medical purposes including improving digestion, stimulating the nervous system, and encouraging breast milk production. In 1847 Fry's chocolate factory in Bristol, England produced the first chocolate bar for general consumption.

This cake takes inspiration from modern Mexican chocolate, which is a mixture of bitter chocolate, sugar, cinnamon and sometimes nuts. It is extremely rich and dense, and is an ideal post-dinner dessert. It can be served with whipped cream, ice cream, yogurt (or Greek yogurt, which is thicker), sour cream or crème fraîche.

Serves 12

1 cup butter (2 sticks)
8 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup unsweetened cocoa
6 eggs
confectioner's sugar and cocoa for dusting (optional)

  1. Melt butter and chocolate in the microwave or on the stove top over very low heat. Make sure not to burn the chocolate. Allow the mixture to cool while you prepare the cake.
  2. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter and line a springform pan (9 or 10 inches in diameter) with wax or parchment paper.
  3. In a large bowl, mix sugar, cinnamon and cocoa. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well after each addition.
  4. Add the butter/chocolate mixture to the egg mixture and mix thoroughly. Pour batter into the pan. Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
  5. Allow the cake to cool to room temperature. This cake can be refrigerated in an airtight container up to one week. Bring back to room temperature before serving. Dust with confectioner's sugar and/or cocoa before serving. Serve with some sort of cream or yogurt, and dust with cinnamon.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mango Ginger Pavlova

I am back from a glorious trip to Tuscany and the Italian Riviera (will post photos soon for those that are interested). I am confident that reflection on the many delicious things I ate will provide inspiration for new recipes. I am now living between Manhattan and Oxford for the next few years and I hope to bring you even more food from Europe.

Summer was officially over a month ago, but I didn’t have time to blog about this lovely pavlova I made for a dinner party in early September. I hope you will indulge this last wisp of summer scrumptiousness which I had promised in an earlier posting for meringue cookies.

A pavlova is a meringue topped with cream and fruit. Like a number of Antipodal treats, including Anzac biscuits, there is some controversy about its origin. What is clear is that the dessert is named for Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (pictured above - can you see the similarity?), and is said to have been created by a Kiwi chef during the dancer’s 1926 visit to Wellington. The Australians dispute this, though the earliest known reference is in a 1929 New Zealand magazine.

Like many good things from the colonies, the British have fallen in love with and popularized the pavlova. My introduction a decade ago occurred in Cheshire, England at the home of my friend Marilla (who now happens to live in New Zealand). And last week my friend Emily invited me over for dinner and served a spicy Thai curry followed by mini pavlovas (store-bought meringue called a “meringue nest” topped with Greek yogurt and her mother’s rhubarb and peach purée).

Serves 6

6 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch

1 cup heavy cream, whipped
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 cup candied ginger, finely diced

1 large mango, diced
1 pint blueberries, washed and dried
1 pint raspberries, washed and dried

1. Preheat oven to 200 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl beat egg whites and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Add sugar slowly and continue to beat until stiff, glossy peaks form.

3. Spoon mixture onto parchment paper creating a 12 inch circle with a slight, broad depression in the center (see photo above).

4. Bake for 90 minutes. Leave meringue in closed oven for a further 120 minutes. The meringue should not darken. If it does, the heat should be reduced to 150 or 175F (see photo above).
5. Carefully fold cardamom and ginger into whipped cream and spoon the mixture onto the cooled meringue.
6. Decorate pavlova with mango, blueberries and raspberries. You can use many types of fruit. Kiwi fruit, passionfruit and strawberries are popular.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

On Vacation in Italy

There will be a small gap in my posts while I am in Italy for a wedding and vacation. I hope to come back with some interesting recipes. In the meantime here are some images of Tuscany and Liguria where I'll be travelling. I'll be back the week of October 8.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Fig Spread

As my friends know, when I host a dinner party it means I'm in the mood for experimentation. Despite my mother's sage advice, when I invite people over, we generally end up eating creations I have dreamed up and tested for the first time. Most of these risks pay off. But once in a while, I make something bad and occassionally I make something awful.

Like the ugly child born to supermodel parents, this week's fig spread is a dreadful melange of otherwise tasty ingredients. It was inspired by a recipe I saw almost a decade ago in my hometown newspaper. It was so awful that my dinner guests made me promise never to make it again.

I don't doubt that the original was tasty, but this version contains the same ingredients in different proportions. This illustrates an important learning experience - some dishes and some ingredients are more forgiving than others. For example, I believe you can never have too much cinnamon, garlic or ginger. You could not say the same thing, however, about baking soda, salt or chili. Similarly, some dishes are very flexible and you can generally add or subtract ingredients - soups and salads are good examples. Others are predicated on a finely tuned balance of flavors and even a minor change can ruin a dish.

Another important lesson for me is that more is not always better. For example, if I had used far fewer olives and tomatoes, they may have been a better complement to the sweetness of the figs. In my recipe, however, the flavors seemed to be equally weighted, which ended up cancelling out the good.

Disasters like this can be embarassing, especially when you are serving a crowd, but I think you can learn a lot from your failures and it sure makes for a good story. In the worse case scenario, you order in pizza...

I wasn't sure if I should provide this disastrous recipe, but I figured some of you might be curious...


2 tablespoons olive oil
3 fresh figs, finely chopped or 1/2 cup fig spread
200 grams feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup olives, finely chopped
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
freshly ground pepper
parsley, for garnish

1. Mix all ingredients and serve as a spread on bread or crackers.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Summer Zucchini Soup

This week has felt like fall in Chicago – tonight it may dip to 40F (4C). Despite the cold snap it is still technically summer, and I plan to make chilled summer dishes until they freeze solid!

Today’s recipe features zucchini, which was first cultivated outside Milan from summer squash ancestors that are native to the Americas. Like the tomato, it is a fruit that is treated as a vegetable in the culinary context. In reality, zucchini are the swollen ovaries of the female blossom.

The name zucchini is the diminutive of zucca, the Italian word for squash. In some parts of Europe it is known by its French moniker – courgette which is diminutive of courge (squash).

Our next door neighbor growing up was a woman named Eleanor. She was a fantastic gardener and had beautiful and well-maintained flower beds as well as a lovely vegetable patch. When she was on holiday, my brother and I would take turns mowing her lawn and watering her plants.

She would often share fresh vegetables with our family including sweet carrots, crisp peas and firm zucchinis, which my mom would make into a vegetable curry. One year Eleanor brought us a 3 pound fruit which had become fibrous and unsuitable for cooking. While we couldn't have used it to make a pot of this humble soup, it would have been ideal for zucchini bread (which I hope to feature this winter).

Serves 8

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
4 cups broth
3.5 pounds zucchini, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese, room temperature (optional)

1. In a large pot on medium heat sauté the onion in olive oil until soft. Add the garlic and sauté for 5 more minutes.
2. Add the broth and bring to a boil.
3. Add zucchini, oregano and salt and cook covered for 30 minutes.
4. Turn off the heat and allow the soup to cool significantly.
5. Pureé the soup in a blender or food processor. Chill several hours or overnight.
6. Bring soup to room temperature and serve with a dollop of mascarpone.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Miniature Key Lime Pies

Although it was only four days long in the U.S., this work week has been exhausting. Many friends are in school or have children in school. I was pleased to see photos of my friend Kiki’s children starting pre-school and kindergarten, and hear about the ambivalence of my colleagues Erika and Valerie as their children transitioned into new routines.

Although summer is not technically over, it feels like it is. To keep the autumn at bay, I decided to make miniature key lime pies. They turned out fairly well, although they were slightly overcooked. Also the cookie base did not remain firm during baking. If anyone finds an especially suitable cookie brand, please let me know. Despite the softness of these pies, they garnered strong reviews.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I use green food color, especially since naturally ripened key limes are actually yellow. Nevertheless, in this country lime is synonymous with green.

The ubiquitous green limes we know are actually known as Persian limes (the word lime comes from the Persian word limu). Key limes are smaller than Persian limes and are more tart, bitter, acidic and aromatic.

They are native to Southeast Asia and came to the New World via the Middle East, then travelled to Sicily, Andalusia, the Caribbean and Florida. A hurricane in 1926 significantly destroyed the U.S. key lime crop, allowing the Persian variety to gain prominence. Thereafter, the term “Key” was added, since the limes were primarily available in the Florida Keys.

Makes 18 key lime pies

2 tins condensed milk (14 ounces each)
6 egg yolks
1 cup key lime juice, freshly squeezed or from a bottle
zest of one Persian lime
4 drops green food color (optional)
18 cookies

whipped cream, for garnish
Persian lime wedges, for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together condensed milk and egg yolks. Incorporate key lime juice and zest.
3. If using, add one drop of food color at a time, and mix thoroughly before adding the next drop.
4. Place foil liners in a muffin pan and put a cookie in each one. The cookies should be the same diameter as the base of the liners. Select cookies that are dense, thick and crisp. I use gingersnaps.
5. Fill each liner with batter.
6. Bake at 350 F for 8 minutes or until set. Do not overbake or the edges will become chewy.
7. Cool for 30 minutes and refrigerate overnight.
8. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a lime wedge.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lemongrass Egg Curry

I first tasted this dish in Boston, lovingly made by my friend Gillian. I always thought it came from her husband's mother, but in a recent email I was told that the recipe is from Bollywood actress turned chef Madhur Jaffrey. Her version involves straining out the onions and spices which makes for a lighter, more subtle curry. Mine is more intense since I puree all ingredients and dilute with coconut milk.
The primary flavor in this curry is lemongrass, also known as cymbopogon or cochin grass. The soft inner part of the stalk is used for cooking in the Caribbean, West Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia. As the name implies, lemongrass has a citrus flavor and scent which comes from citral oil, its main constituent. It is widely used in curries, tea, soups and fish dishes. Lemongrass is closely related to citronella grass which produces the citronella oil used in soaps, insect repellants, disinfectants and candles.
In this curry, aromatic lemongrass is complemented by ginger, garlic and a touch of tamarind.
Serves 6

1 stick lemongrass, minced or 2 teaspoons lemongrass paste
2 inches cubed fresh ginger, minced or pureed
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoon coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium sized onion, chopped
1/4 cup friend onions
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cans coconut milk (about 800 ml)
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate, or to taste
12 – 14 hard boiled eggs, shelled at room temperature
mint leaves for garnish

1. In a small bowl mix lemongrass, ginger, cayenne, pepper, coriander and turmeric until it forms a thick paste.
2. In a large pot, sauté both types of onion and garlic in oil until golden.
3. Add paste and sauté for a further ten minutes.
4. Transfer the onions and paste to a blender, add some coconut milk, and liquefy.
5. Transfer back to the pot. Add remaining coconut milk, salt and sugar.
6. Add tamarind paste in small amounts to make sure the curry does not become too bitter. Mix well.
7. Add the eggs and bring to a simmer.
8. Garnish with chopped mint leaves and serve over rice.

If you make this recipe (up to 3 days) in advance, do not add eggs to the curry until the final heating before you serve. Otherwise they may overcook and become hard.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Peach and Berry Crisp

One of my favorite summer treats is baked fresh fruit covered with a flour and oats topping. In the United States this is called a crisp, but in the United Kingdom it is known as a crumble. These desserts are often conflated with cobblers. In the U.S. a cobbler is baked fruit covered with a layer of pastry and in the U.K. it is usually a meat dish (often lamb casserole), covered with individual scones (the name derives from the word cobble, which is a round stone, as in cobblestone street).

These were invented as easy and inexpensive alternatives to fruit pies, which require a pie dish and carefully made pastry. Cobblers were created by pioneers in the American West and crumbles became popular in the U.K. during World War II because they required fewer rationed resources.

They are generally made with apples, peaches, plums, rhubarb and all types of berries. In the U.S. peach cobbler is a common and beloved dessert in the South and Apple Brown Betty (baked, spiced apples layered between buttered breadcrumbs) is popular in New England.

I made this crisp at my last bookclub session, and unfortunately, no one had a working camera to document it. Please forgive these stock photos from the web.

Serves 8 to 10


1 1/2 to 2 pounds fresh peaches (about 6 peaches), pitted and sliced
1 pound raspberries and/or blueberries (fresh or frozen)
1/4 cup tapioca
1 cup light brown sugar, packed

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup instant rolled oats
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into small cubes


1. Preheat the oven to 425 F.
2. In a three quart bowl toss fruit with tapioca and sugar. Bake for 15 minutes.
3. In a separate bowl combine flour, oats and salt.
4. Toss in butter and use a pastry cutter or your hands to blend until it resembles coarse meal.
5. Once fruit is cooked, scatter flour mixture on top. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes.
6. Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ginger Cookie Sandwiches

I can’t believe that I haven’t written about ginger before. It is truly one of my favorite flavors. As a child I remember my mom buying great quantities of gnarled gingeroot, and making a jar of ginger paste to be generously doled into lentils and vegetable curries. From a young age I had a predilection for ginger snaps and ginger preserve (the British do this best), and regularly delight in ginger cookies and gingerbread, especially around Christmas.

Ginger is not actually a root but a rhizome, which is the subterranean stem of a plant. It originated in China and is now widely used in East Asia, South Asia, Middle East and the West. While the literature is inconclusive on its medical benefits, some studies have shown ginger to thin blood, lower cholesterol; it may also have sedative, analgesic and antibacterial properties. Check out the Wikipedia page for ginger, especially note the “References in popular culture” section which contains some very odd facts.

These cookies were inspired by 6-inch ginger cookie sandwiches which were famous at the Lazy Loaf and Kettle Café and Bakery that I frequented in Calgary. The café was a short drive from my first job, and once a week someone from the office would make a cookie run. Those sandwiches were certainly big enough to share… but I never did! My version is less cruel to the waistline.

Makes 30 sandwiches (60 cookies)

3/4 cup unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1/4 cup unsulphured molasses
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice (optional)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
1/2 cup crystallized ginger, minced
1/2 cup granulated sugar (optional)

1 pound cream cheese (low fat is fine)
2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1. In a medium size bowl combine flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, allspice, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
2. In another large bowl cream together butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add molasses and beat well.
3. Slowly beat in flour mixture. Using a wooden spoon mix in fresh and crystallized gingers.
4. The batter will be very soft, so cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.
5. Preheat oven to 350 F.
6. Roll batter into 3/4-inch balls and roll in granulated sugar (optional). Set 2 inches apart on parchment-lined baking sheets.
7. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until slightly brown. Cool on a wire rack.
8. Mix cream cheese and powdered sugar until well blended. Add vanilla extract and beat until smooth. Place a generous teaspoon of icing on the bottom of a cookie and sandwich with another cookie. Squeeze slightly to adhere.
9. Store cookie sandwiches in the fridge and serve within 5 days. Leave some single cookies for a less indulgent snack.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Feta, Tomato and Broccoli Frittata

Frittatas are my most dependable brunch entrée. They are easy to make, forgiving in ingredient amounts and types, and can be made the night before and served at room temperature.

I describe frittatas as a baked omelet or a crust-less quiche. The word comes from the Italian word fritto, meaning to fry. Most recipes call for first sautéing ingredients in a skillet followed by broiling, but since none of my skillets are ovenproof, I bake them in pie dishes instead. This is much easier, uses less fat and dirties one less pan.

Serves 2-4 as a light entree, 4-8 as a side dish

8 eggs
1/2 cups milk or whipping cream
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
4 green onions, sliced (optional)
1 small head of broccoli, cut into florets
6 ounces cubed feta cheese
1 pint plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise
4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round metal baking pan and line with parchment. Grease the parchment.
2. Beat eggs and add milk/cream, garlic, pepper and nutmeg. Beat well.
3. Add green onions, broccoli and feta cheese and mix gently.
4. Pour into a 9-inch metal or glass pie dish. Evenly distribute tomato halves (cut sides facing up).
5. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until set.
6. Once cooled, gently remove by cutting around edge to dislodge. Invert onto a plate and then transfer to another plate so frittata is facing up. Slice into wedges and serve with a green salad.
7. Will stay fresh for 3 days - just cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.