The strawberries are here! The strawberries are here! I anticipate strawberry season all year. I know you can buy strawberries every day now, but there is nothing like a fresh, seasonal, locally grown berry. So I wait. I may use some frozen berries during the out-of season-months, but I rarely buy the berries in the produce section. The farmers markets here start before strawberry season (the middle of April) starts, but things get exciting once the strawberries arrive. All this waiting makes the berries even sweeter, and as they fade, I look forward to the next berry harvest – blueberries and raspberries.
All this means I make the most of strawberry season while its here. I call this morning cake, because it makes a wonderful breakfast or brunch treat, not too sweet, but hearty and fresh with the burst of juicy berries. It has a lovely grainy, nutty texture from the almond meal that sets this apart from a typical coffee cake. The drizzle of creamy almond glaze ups the sweetness (you can certainly leave it off) and adds an extra hit of almond flavor. I am not, of course, saying this couldn’t be served as dessert with a scoop of ice cream or a pillow of whipped cream.
I started a tradition when my nieces (and later my nephew) were very young. Every year at Christmas, I took them to lunch at a restaurant and then we went shopping for toys and food for all the folks who didn’t have as much at Christmas as we always have. When the girls were very little, I didn’t have much experience handling kids on my own, so I chose a popular chain restaurant where I knew we could all be comfortable. I wanted them to have fun, and I wanted to avoid any meltdowns. It became for many years “our place.” But another reason I chose that particular restaurant was selfish – they served a mean Monte Cristo. A giant hunk of fried deliciousness that I couldn’t finish in one sitting. It was a little Christmas present to myself. That chain went out of business years ago, and I have yet to find a Monte Cristo that equals theirs, though we have found a new “our place.”
A real Monte Cristo is a restaurant treat for me though. I simply am not assembling, battering and frying – I’ll leave that to the professionals. The classic combination of flavors, though, is downright good – turkey and ham and cheese encased in tender bread with that surprising sweet sprinkle of powdered sugar and a little dab of strawberry preserves. The idea lends itself wonderfully to the classic brunch casserole and here is my version. I like to keep it simple, with lots of ham and turkey and a lightly mustardy custard encasing it all. I generously sprinkle the top with a dusting of powdered sugar, which adds that lovely sweet edge and adds a touch of elegance, and serve place a nice bowl of good preserves next to it so each guest can dollop as much or as little as they like.
Monte Cristo Casserole makes a wonderful dish on a brunch buffet or for a family dinner. I served it to my extended family recently, and when I told them what it was, my nieces both said “oh, like that sandwich you like.” Memories made.
It must have been close to St. Patrick’s Day. I had a six pack of Guinness on hand. Maybe I’d made some Guinness Glazed Irish Bacon or some Irish Rarebit. I love cooking with mallty stout, but I don’t particularly like drinking it straight, so I was looking for ways to use all those bottles. An Irish-inspired rustic loaf seemed the perfect thing. This bread has the lovely, dense texture of a traditional soda bread with the added tang from the Guinness. Oatmeal adds a lovely texture and richness. I like to let it cool just enough to slice easily, then spread it with lashings of Irish butter. Its also delicious toasted, or with a slice of good Irish cheddar cheese.
What could be better beside a bowl of soup than homemade bread. The muffins are easy, fluffy and full of flavor. The yeast gives them a light hand while the chives add a slightly onion-y tang. I suppose you could stir in any fresh herb, but the subtle taste of chives complements almost any soup. Serve these warm with a little butter melting into the crevices, and you’ve got a great soup supper.
I’ve been making this bread pudding for years, when I really want to pull out the stops for a decadent, but homey, dessert. It’s another of those recipes written on card, transferred to a notebook, moved to a file folder – the victim of my many attempts to organize a lifetimes worth of shared and saved recipes. The chocolate custard soaks through the bread and the chocolate morsels add little surprises of molten chocolate. This is not a dessert for the faint of heart.
When I was making this again to test and photograph it, I was suddenly struck with great indecision. Should I make a peppermint version? Add a new sauce? I finally decided the most helpful thing to do would be to stick with the basics and share this template recipe, which is utterly delicious and perfect as it is. But I offer some seasonal variations and additional trimmings from the archives.
I’ve been focusing this month on simple comfort foods; food to share with family and friends that are simple and delicious. And nothing is more comforting to me than a homemade biscuit. So in the fall, I like to pair up the best of the season’s apples with a little sweet maple syrup to make a perfectly appropriate treat for breakfast, brunch or a snack.
These biscuits have just a hint of sweetness, so they pair well with the sweet maple butter. Any sweet spread would be lovely from homemade apple butter to a drizzle of honey. Take them more to the savory side with plain butter, or use them for ham biscuits with a little swipe of mustard.
Honestly, I have always been ambivalent about banana bread. Most of what I have been offered is filled with all kinds of additions, lots of nuts, chocolate chips, spices. It’s too much for me and masks any banana flavor. And it is often accompanied by the disclaimer “I had a bunch of old bananas, so I thought I ought to make bread,” which is not a very good introduction. But the generally popularity of banana bread cannot be disputed, so I decided I should create a recipe that meets my banana bread tastes. I started with buttermilk, because I adore using buttermilk for baking. It keeps the bread moist and adds a nice little tang. I find it highlights the fresh banana taste. I left out the extras – I like nuts, but not always in baked goods, and again, I want a banana bread that tastes like bananas. So this is my house banana bread. Simple and straightforward, with lots of banana flavor.
My life sometimes requires comfort cooking. Not comfort food, but comfort cooking, though the two are not mutually exclusive. Comfort food for me is old classics that bring back happy memories, sometimes bittersweet, or that make a down day worthwhile. Often, that means food prepared by someone other than me.
Comfort cooking is me, in the kitchen, alone. Usually silent but for the gentle whirr of the refrigerator, sometimes music in the background. My favorite kitchen tools around me. Absolute surety in what I am doing. No complicated techniques, no ingredients I am hoping to understand better. No attempt to deconstruct or decipher a dish created by someone more skilled than me. No worries about how others will perceive the end result. No concerns that it might not turn out how I’d hoped. Sometimes it’s a dish I want to share with my nearest and dearest, but I may not, just savor it comfortably, happily in splendid seclusion.
Chicken and dressing is comfort cooking for me. In fact, I rather suspect that when this is seen by others, my friends and family may call to chide that I have never made chicken and dressing for them. It’s not a dish from my childhood, in fact I may have first had a pallid version in a school cafeteria and later only in meat-and-three joints. But it has all the elements of comfort cooking and comfort food for me. Simple tasks – making stock, dicing vegetables, baking cornbread, mincing herbs. A lot of steps, but none difficult or distracting. I can stand at my post at the kitchen counter, my favorite spot in my beloved home, and work the knife or stir the stock, the fragrance of real cooking around me, and think. Just think and feel and be. I don’t watch the clock or worry about what’s next. Because what’s next is something simple and wonderful. Every step, every element made by me. I don’t even care that the sinks are full of dishes, or there is cornmeal dusted on the floor. Problems for another day.
The recipe may seem lengthy, but it can be done in gentle stages. Your home will fill with the wonderful aroma of the stock simmering, the cornbread baking, the vegetables softening and the whole cooking together. That alone is worth the effort.
Southern Cornbread Chicken and Dressing with Gravy
The Stock and Chicken
3- 4 pound chicken, giblets removed
2 celery stalks
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 Tablespoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Place the chicken and all the stock ingredients in a 7 quart or larger pot and add 12 cups of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, skim off any scum that rises. Reduce the heat to medium low and cover. Simmer for 4 hours. Taste the stock, it should be nice and rich. Simmer a bit longer if needed. Remove the chicken to a plate, then strain the broth through a colander lined with cheesecloth or a thin tea towel into a large bowl. Discard the vegetables. Pull the meat from the chicken and discard the skin, bones and any unpleasant bits. Refrigerate the meat and the stock for several hours (I frequently do this the day before). Skim the fat from the top of the stock. Reserve the chicken and the stock to complete the dish.
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
¼ cup vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 400°. Place a 9” cast iron skillet in the oven to heat.
Stir the cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt together in a large bowl until completely combined. Add the milk, egg and oil and stir just until the batter comes together and there are no visible dry ingredients. Remove the skillet from the oven using an oven mitt and carefully spread the batter in the hot pan. Return the skillet to the oven and bake for 20 minutes until the cornbread is golden and dry. Cool completely in the skillet.
¼ cup ( ½ stick) butter
2 carrots, finely diced
2 celery stalks, finely diced
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic minced
3 sprigs sage, finely minced
2 stalks rosemary, finely minced
3 sprigs thyme, finely minced
¼ cup minced parsley
the reserved chicken meat
1 cup milk
3 – 4 cups reserved chicken broth
salt and black pepper
Break the cornbread into large chunks in a large bowl.
Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a skillet. Add the diced carrot, celery and onion and cook until the vegetables are beginning to soften and the onion is translucent, but not browning. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute. Add ½ cup of the reserved chicken broth and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are soft. Stir in the minced herbs and cook about a minute until fragrant. Scrape the vegetables into the bowl with the cornbread. Stir to combine and begin breaking the cornbread into smaller pieces.
Chop the chicken meat into small bite-sized pieces. The tender meat will fall apart, but I think it is best when there are discernible pieces of chicken in the dressing rather than shreds. Stir the chicken into the cornbread and vegetables to distribute evenly.
Measure the milk in a 2-cup jug, then add the eggs and beat well. Stir into the dressing, then add 1 cup of chicken broth and stir until the dressing is evenly moist. Spread the dressing into a deep 8-inch square baking dish. Do not press it down, just spread it in a nice, even layer. (At this point, you can cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight).
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350°. Pour 1 ½ cups of stock over the dressing. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake a further 20 minutes until browned on the top. If the dressing looks dry when you remove the foil, drizzle over a bit more stock.
¼ cup bacon grease
¼ cup butter
½ cup flour
2 cups chicken stock
salt and pepper to taste
Melt the bacon grease and butter together in a medium saucepan. Stir in the flour until it is smooth and combined. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, for 3 – 5 minutes until the foaming subsides and you have a light toffee brown roux, like a fraternity boy’s khaki pants or a roasted peanut shell. Reduce the heat to medium low and slowly stir in the stock. Cook until the gravy is smooth. If you like a thinner gravy, add more stock to reach your preferred consistency. Season to taste with salt and black pepper (I like a lot of pepper).
When I leaf through cookbooks, I mark recipes that look interesting with little post-it flags. I frequently go back through those marked pages when I am looking for ideas, and it is always interesting when I return to books to see what caught my attention at any particular moment. Recently, I was flipping through some old community cookbooks to pass the time and I came across a marker on a recipe for cottage cheese rolls. I can’t imagine what made me mark it, as I am neither a baker of rolls or a particular fan of cottage cheese. But as it happened, I had a container of cottage cheese in the fridge I had mistakenly bought instead of ricotta, so I decided this would be a good way to use it. And it was. These rolls are simple enough for a yeast-fearing girl like myself, but the cottage cheese makes these rolls light and delightfully tangy. The dough is wet so the finished rolls are moist and fluffy.
Cottage Cheese Dinner Rolls
2 packets active dry yeast
½ cup lukewarm water
16 ounces cottage cheese
¼ cup sugar
2 Teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, at room temperature
4 ½ – 5 cups all-purpose flour
Rinse the bowl of a stand mixer with warm water so the bowl is not cold. Pour the ½ cup lukewarm water over in the bowl and sprinkle the yeast over. Sprinkle in a little of the sugar and stir. Leave for about 5 minutes to proof.
Heat the cottage cheese in a small pan over medium-low heat just until it is lukewarm. Do not let it scorch or bubble. Add the cottage cheese to the yeast in the bowl, then add the rest of the sugar, the salt, baking soda and the eggs and 1 cup of flour and beat with the paddle attachment until combined. Add about 3 – 3 ½ cups of flour, a little at a time, just until you have a shaggy, wet dough that pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Scrape the dough into a well – greased bowl, turn it over so the top is greased as well then cover and leave to rise in a warm place until it has doubled in volume.*
Remove the risen dough to a surface dusted with about ½ cup of flour. Knead the dough a few times in the flour to remove some of the stickiness. Divide the dough into 24 equal pieces with a floured knife or bench scraper. Lightly flour you hands and roll each portion into a ball. Place the balls close together in two greased 9-inch round pans. Cover the pans loosely with a towel and leave to rise for 30 – 40 minutes until doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Bake the rolls for 20 minutes until firm and golden on the top. Remove from the oven and cover loosely with a tea towel until ready to serve. I like to serve these warm from the oven with butter to spread inside, but you can brush the tops of the cooled rolls with melted butter, loosely cover with foil and reheat in a low oven for a few minutes, just to warm through.
Makes 24 rolls
*Here’s a tip I learned from a friend. The microwave is a warm, draft free place great for rising dough. Just leave a post-it not so no one turns it on. Even better, create a moist, warm dough habitat by putting a measuring cup with ½ cup of water in the microwave before the bowl of dough and zap for 2 minutes, until the inside is nice and steamy. Quickly stick the dough bowl in and shut the door.
An easy weeknight treat is a great recipe to have on hand. I love this version of a a classic pizza casserole, updated my way with no jarred sauces or chemical laden boxed mixes. This is a real family pleaser, better than greasy delivery and easier than making or rolling out dough. A mix of beef and Italian sausage with fun bites of pepperoni up the pizza factor.
If your dinners will stand it, you can sauté some shredded carrots, bell peppers and onion with the meat to add a little touch of vegetables. Or sprinkle a little red pepper in with the filling if you like spice. You could even use ground turkey and turkey or chicken Italian sausage.
Upside Down Pizza Pie Bake
½ pound ground beef
½ pound bulk Italian sausage (or links with casing removed)
2 cloves minced garlic
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
½ cup diced pepperoni*
1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
1 Tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup shredded parmesan cheese
Break the beef and sausage into a large skillet and cook until browned and no longer pink, breaking up into small pieces as you go. When the meat is cooked, stir in the garlic and the oregano and stir to combine. Stir in the pepperoni. Add the tomato sauce and 2 Tablespoons flour and stir until thoroughly combined and thick.
Spread the meat mixture a well-greased 8-inch square baking dish. Leave to cool slightly, then spread the mozzarella cheese evenly over the top.
Preheat the oven to 350°. Beat the eggs, milk and olive oil together in a small bowl, then add the flour and whisk until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Pour the batter over the top of the meat and cheese and spread to cover the top completely. Sprinkle over the parmesan cheese.
Bake the pizza for 35 – 40 minutes until puffy, golden and the cheese has melted. Let the dish sit for 5 minutes. Loosen the sides of the pizza with a thin knife, then invert it onto a platter. Cut into squares and serve immediately.
* The last time I made this, I found some “mini” pepperoni rounds at the grocery. They are perfect for this recipe, and cute to boot!