Thursday, February 23, 2017

a Virginia-inspired Ploughman's lunch

I learned of a Ploughman's Lunch while watching Barefoot in London last December. I loved learning about the history behind this humble, traditional English lunch . . . and how it has transformed over the years.

A Ploughman's Lunch reminds me of the the kind of feast that my sweet grandma would prepare for us every Saturday and Sunday in her home, where up to 15 of us would gather to eat, socialize, and catch up with one another. Our weekend visits are one of my most treasured childhood memories.

My grandma was German. Her family moved to America when she was 5 years old. She spoke no English, and shared how challenging it was as a child to be totally immersed in a new culture.

My great-grandparents settled into farm life, as most people did during that time. They owned and operated a dairy farm in the South Bay area of Southern California (where I grew up and our family still resides).  My grandma shared many stories of hard work on their farm, as well as gatherings with small, local German communities where they would socialize, support one another, and keep their traditions alive.

As my grandma grew up, she embraced being American; and although she learned to speak perfect English and grow up to be a productive American citizen, she still embraced and shared her heritage with us.

Looking back on my childhood and growing up years, I remember celebrating our German heritage through the foods we ate, our monthly trips to a local German Village to buy specialty foods, and through our family gatherings and traditions. I am so blessed to have many, many loving and treasured memories with my grandma and extended family.

Family was always of the most utmost importance to my grandma. She was known for her warm, unconditional love and hospitality.  We were always welcomed into her home with a hug, a kiss, and food.  It's quite funny, she was most happy when we were eating the food that she gathered and prepared for us . . . and that is how this beautiful and abundant Ploughman's Lunch reminds me of her.

We would gather around her dining room table every weekend to enjoy a "Ploughman's Lunch," of sorts . . . a breadboard that was filled with cheeses, crackers, fresh fruits like grapes and cantaloupe, small pickles, olives, liver pate, sliced meats, and German mustard and breads.

Cheese and food boards seem so fancy these days; but really - they're not. Well, some might be . . . but mostly they're a humble gathering of what you have on hand; and what you 'gather' for your board will often reflect your heritage, where you live, and even your diet.

I thought it would be fun to create a Virginia-inspired Ploughman's Lunch for a very casual lunch gathering we had with friends last month.

A traditional Ploughman's lunch has cheese, bread, boiled eggs, and pickles.  Additional items like sliced apples, ham, and pickled items can also be added.

I stayed true to the roots of a traditional Ploughman's lunch, and then added sliced baked Virginia ham, as well as a this historical dressing I found on the Mount Vernon website to create our Virginia-inspired Ploughman's lunch.

our Virginia-inspired Ploughman's lunch
.     .     .     .     .     .
fresh, warm baguette
medium boiled eggs
kosher baby dills
baby carrots
cherry tomatoes
sliced bosc pears
sliced Fuji apples
sliced baked Virginia ham
.     .     .     .     .     .

We enjoyed a cool January afternoon gathered around our dining room table, catching up, exchanging stories, laughing, and making memories.

My Littles have grown to love the cheese (and food) boards I prepare for our family and friends. They even have cheese and cracker preferences now (big smile!). It makes me so happy, because it reminds me of MY childhood days.

I'm already dreaming of the California-inspired Ploughman's lunch that I plan to share with friends this Summer. I think creamy Haas avocados, California almonds, garden tomatoes, and central valley strawberries will make an appearance.  I can't wait!

Until then, I hope I've inspired you to gather delights for your very own Ploughman's lunch.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

chocolate fridge cake

Happy New Year!

I hope this new post finds that each and every one of you had a beautiful holiday with your friends and family.

We spent our Christmas - here - in Virginia. This was my first time - ever - not spending the holidays with my mom, oldest son, and siblings/niece/nephews. I missed them terribly.  I did my very best to continue the many treasured traditions we've carried on over the years. I truly love traditions. They bring a special happiness . . . familiarity . . . and comfort. Being far away from home makes our family's traditions even more important than ever.

Even fairly new traditions can bring comfort. I started making Chocolate Fridge Cake almost 5 years ago. It's one of my favorite holiday traditions.

A friend of our family gifted our oldest daughter, Charley, her first cookbook, apron, and rolling pin when she was almost 4 years old. It's filled with fun and simple recipes, color photos, and step-by-step instructions.

I wasn't too surprised when she saw the page with chocolate fridge cake and asked me if we could make it. I happened to have all the ingredients, but opted to switch out the dried apricots, almonds, and raisins with Trader Joe's Peppermint Joe Joe's.  Great decision, by the way!

I had never heard of Chocolate Fridge Cake before . . . and had no idea what it was going to taste like.

Honestly, it's hard to describe, but friends - - - it's crazy good!  So simple to prepare . . . and so good!

I love its versatility. The only limit when it comes to flavorings is your imagination, or what you happen to have in your cupboard.

You can pick and mix the fillings to suit your taste. I do recommend using graham crackers as the base "biscuit" of choice.  Your fillings can range from not-to-sweet dried fruits, raisins, and nuts; or our favorite, Trader Joe's Peppermint Joe Joe's or Mint Oreos.  The fillings should add up to approximately 2 cups.

Ok, so let's talk chocolate . . . It's the most important element of a chocolate fridge cake. This is where you splurge on good, high-quality chocolate. Resist using plain chocolate, which gives a rather bitter character. I recommend a mix of milk and semi-sweet for the perfect balance of sweet and chocolaty.

You can pour the warm mixture into an 8-inch square pan, muffin tins, or a bread pan to set. I prefer a bread pan so that I can cut tall, pretty slices to share with friends and family.

I think a dusting of cocoa powder over the top is quite pretty, too!

Although I typically make chocolate fridge cake primarily in December and January, I think it would be amazing any of time year, especially during the Summer months when it's too hot to turn the oven on - and you're craving something sweet, or needing a quick dessert.


chocolate fridge cake
.     .     .     .    .     .
5 ounces milk chocolate
5 ounces semi sweet chocolate
1/2 cup light or golden corn syrup
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
8 ounces graham crackers
2 cups mint Oreo's, chopped into small pieces
cocoa powder, garnish
.     .     .     .    .     .
Use plastic wrap to line an 8-inch square pan. Leave extra plastic wrap hanging over the sides.

Break the crackers into small pieces with a rolling pin. 

Using a knife, cut the Oreo's into smaller pieces.

Melt chocolate, butter, and syrup in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water. 
The bowl should not touch the water. Stir occasionally. 

Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the broken crackers and cookies. 

Spoon the mixture into the pan. 
Level the surface by pressing it down with your hands, or the bottom of a glass. 

Allow it to cool, then put the chocolate mixture in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours to set.

Turn out the cake and peel off the plastic wrap. 
Dust with cocoa powder. Cut the cake into 12 squares and enjoy!

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

chocolate (sour cream) bundt cake

I love bundt cakes year-round!

They're simple to prepare, and don't typically require out-of-the ordinary ingredients, which makes it easy to bake one at a moment's notice. And I love that you can dress them up with a garnish when you have company, or enjoy them with a simple dusting of powdered sugar.

This beautiful chocolate bundt cake was a staple for me this holiday season.

I baked several mini bundt cakes to give as gifts, and made large bundts to share with friends who came by to visit. It's heavenly with a glass of eggnog, or a cup of coffee or hot cocoa!

For an extra special treat, buy a pint of your favorite high-quality egg nog OR peppermint ice cream. Leave it out on your counter-top for about an hour before serving dessert. The ice cream will melt, making the most delectable cream sauce to drizzle over your bundt slices.  It is so good!  *Another great tip from Ina Garten :0).

 Although my chocolate bundt cake is dressed for the holiday season, they're delicious year-round.  It's no surprise that I turned to my Cook's Illustrated Cookbook for their recipe.

The addition of Dutch cocoa AND bittersweet chocolate, along with sour cream and 5 eggs . . . makes for a truly chocolatey and MOIST cake!

Be sure and take the time to properly butter and 'cocoa powder' your bundt pan to ensure a clean release.

With the Littles home on Winter break and cooler temperatures outside . . . we're still baking up a storm.

So many fun and happy memories to be had - gathered in the kitchen!

Happy baking, friends!

chocolate (sour cream) bundt cake 
3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional)
3/4 cup water (boiling)
1 cup sour cream, room temperature
1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (8 3/4 ounces)
1 teaspoon baking soda
12 Tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), room temperature
2 cups light brown sugar
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
5 large eggs, room temperature
confectioners' sugar for dusting

for a clean cake release
1 Tablespoon butter, melted
1 Tablespoon cocoa
Stir together butter and cocoa in small bowl until paste forms; using a pastry brush, coat all interior surfaces of standard 12-cup Bundt pan.  

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position; preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine cocoa, chocolate, and espresso powder (if using) in medium heatproof bowl; pour boiling water over and whisk until smooth. Cool to room temperature; then whisk in sour cream. Whisk flour, salt, and baking soda in second bowl to combine.

In standing mixer fitted with flat beater, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. 

Reduce speed to medium and add eggs one at a time, mixing about 30 seconds after each addition and scraping down bowl with rubber spatula after first 2 additions. 

Reduce to medium-low speed; add about one third of flour mixture and half of chocolate/sour cream mixture and mix until just incorporated, about 20 seconds. Scrape bowl and repeat using half of remaining flour mixture and all of remaining chocolate mixture; add remaining flour mixture and beat until just incorporated, about 10 seconds. Scrape bowl and mix on medium-low until batter is thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. 

Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan, being careful not to pour batter on sides of pan. 

Bake until wooden skewer inserted into center comes out with few crumbs attached, 45 to 50 minutes. 

Cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert cake onto parchment-lined wire rack; cool to room temperature, about 3 hours. 

courtesy Cook's Illustrated

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

the ultimate holiday brunch . . . baked french toast, brown sugar bacon, sweet potato hash and more


Hello, friends!

I was happily overwhelmed with the emails I received after sharing my post "Celebrating Thanksgiving with a Fall-inspired brunch."  So many of you asked me to please share the recipes of the dishes that I served for our brunch. 

Here was our menu . . .

our Fall-inspired brunch
.     .     .     .     .     .
chili brown sugar thick-cut bacon 
.   .   .
fennel & rosemary sausage
.   .   .
skillet sweet potato hash 
with caramelized onions & sprigs of thyme
.   .   .
farm fresh scrambled eggs 
with white cheddar cheese & fresh herbs 
.   .   . 
baked pumpkin french toast
with cinnamon crumb streusel & maple cream cheese glaze
.   .   . 
buttermilk waffles 
drizzled with browned butter maple syrup & topped with eggnog whipped cream 
& a pinch of nutmeg
.   .   . 
dark chocolate hot cocoa
with eggnog whipped cream
.     .     .     .     .     .




Our brunch was different and wonderful! 

You see, although I had hosted Thanksgiving for the last 5 years, I wanted to do something different this year, as I was missing my family back home . . .  and preparing a big, traditional Thanksgiving meal just wouldn't have been the same, without ALL the same family and friends to share it with; and so inspired our brunch.

If you follow me, then you know that I LOVE brunch. It's my favorite meal of the day, and my favorite time of day to entertain.

I wanted to prepare the ultimate Thanksgiving/Fall-inspired brunch, and also have fun doing it. So I spent a few days combing through my recipe binders, and pulled inspiration from a few of my favorite cookbooks, too. 

I love that I was able to prepare many of the brunch items the day before, allowing me more time on Thanksgiving morning to go at a slower pace and enjoy my family along the way.  

For instance, I prepared the pumpkin/egg/milk/and spice mixture for the baked pumpkin french toast the night before, as well as the streusel topping, which made for quick and easy assembly in the morning. I also made the maple cream cheese glaze the day before, and then warmed it in the microwave for 45 seconds before serving it. 

Because most of the "preparation work" was done the day before, Thanksgiving morning was more about assembling, cooking/baking, and then serving. 

Although I am way late sharing this post, there are still so many of you hosting brunches through the holiday season; and I'm hoping that you'll find something from our menu that will make a delicious addition to your holiday menu. 

baked pumpkin french toast
with cinnamon streusel & maple cream cheese glaze
.     .     .     .     .     .     .
cinnamon crumble streusel
1 stick unsalted butter, melted 
1/3 cup light brown sugar 
1/4 cup pure cane granulated sugar 
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour 
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt 
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg 
.     .     .     .     .     .     .
pumpkin french toast 
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus more for buttering the pan 
1 15-ounce cans pumpkin puree 
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk 
1 cup milk 
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon pumpkin spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
pinch of salt 
4 large eggs 
1 loaf brioche or challah bread, 1-inch thick slices 
.     .     .     .     .     .     .
maple cream cheese glaze
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 - 8 ounce tub of whipped cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup pure maple syrup
.     .     .     .     .     .     .

For the crumble topping
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. 
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over high heat until it begins to turn light golden brown. 
Whisk in both of the sugars and cook until smooth. 
Take the pot off the heat and add the flour, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg - and mix until clumps begin to form. Refrigerate the crumb mixture for 15 minutes.

For the pumpkin batter

Lightly butter a 12-by-8-inch baking pan.
In a large bowl, combine the pumpkin puree, condensed milk, regular milk, cinnamon, pumpkins spice, vanilla, eggs and 1 tablespoon of the melted butter and whisk until combined. 

Grab a slice of bread and submerge it in the pumpkin custard. Soak with enough custard to cover both sides of the bread, then layer it in the prepared baking pan (see photo). 
Repeat the process until the bottom the pan is full. 

Sprinkle the top of the slices with cinnamon crumble streusel. 

Bake until the top is golden, 40 to 45 minutes. 
Serve with a drizzle of maple cream cheese glaze.

For the glaze 

Either by hand or in a stand mixer, whisk together the cream cheese and butter until smooth.  Slowly pour the maple syrup into the cream cheese and butter mixture until combined and smooth. 
Drizzle the glaze over the baked french toast. 

Friends! Have you ever had brown sugar bacon? 
It's such a treat! And insanely delicious! 

Adding a touch of chili powder and cumin takes this already amazing bacon - over the top!
I loved that every bite was a little sweet, warm, and spicy . . . and wrapped up in one. 

chili & brown sugar bacon
.     .     .     .     .     .     .
1/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
2 teaspoons chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
8 slices thick-cut bacon
.     .     .     .     .     .     .
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. 
Set a cooling rack inside the prepared pan and set aside. 

In a shallow dish, combine the brown sugar, chili powder, and cumin. 

Dredge the bacon slices in the brown sugar and arrange the bacon on the rack. 

Bake in a preheated oven until crisp, about 20 minutes. 

Transfer to a serving plate and serve. 
.     .     .     .     .     .     .

Happy holiday brunching!

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