December 27, 2011

Apple Spice Cake

Most of the time, cake is just not as tasty as pie. Cake is too cakey. It is often too dry, too sugary, too dense, too buttery, and too-too. Pie, on the other hand, is perfection in my world. It has a perfect balance of crust and filling, flaky and sweet, and it just gets better with age. My ratio of pie to cake baking is probably three to one. It takes a special cake to win my heart over a pie and with this apple cake, I just might have one.

Therefore, I wish to prove that all that cake discrimination is mere stereotype. Enter this exquisitely balanced apple spice cake and caramel sauce. An old family recipe, this cake was adapted and edited by my mom over the many years that she baked this for her family. I remember this cake in both cake pan and Bundt pan form, with and without nuts, with and without caramel. Many apple cakes and many tests on just the right amount of fat, sugar, and spice finally coalesce into the wonderful recipe that I share today.

December 25, 2011


Today, in the spirit of traversing half of this country in under 6 hours, having breakfast in North Carolina and supper in Arkansas, recovering from an incense-filled midnight service (complete with Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium and Sweelinck's Hodie Christus natus est, no less), little sleep but plenty of bourbon, I bring to the table - literally and figuratively - Glühwein.

I also recently read a sentence in The New Yorker that was about twenty lines long. It was very crass, grammatically inappropriate, but my excuse for the convoluted statement above. To put it more succinctly: I sang a service at midnight, hopped on a plane to Arkansas, and started thinking about this Glühwein that I made a couple of weeks ago. 

December 24, 2011


The first time I made rugelach was a couple of years ago during an intense Christmas cookie baking bug. I made several different types of cookies over the span of just a few days. The spread was pretty resplendent: snickerdoodles, cardamom crescents, cookie pralines, gingerbread, peanut butter fudge, and almond bark pretzels all showed up at one point or another over one Christmas week. It makes me weary (and a little sick) to think about it now. The experience was definitely interesting, but I've never had that kind of cookie baking bug since.

My favorite cookie to materialize during this week was rugelach, a twisty, croissant-like cookie flecked with raisins and nuts, and sweet with apricot jam. Rugelach first appeared in Jewish baking traditions in Central Europe sometime in the 18th or 19th century. The cookie evolved out of the viennoiserie of baked goods that flourished throughout the 19th century in Vienna. Of course I can't resist viennoiserie almost just as much as I can't resist typing it out or thinking about incorporating the concept into my dissertation. Croissants, pain au chocolat, and other twisty, braided sweet goods also fall under the category of viennoiserie. It's a French concept that is derived from Vienna coffeehouse fare that I love so well. Rugelach belongs to the category of viennoiserie because of its croissant-like shape and delicate appeal. Modern rugelach cookies are mostly baked, but some Jewish traditions opt to fry theirs in oil, thereby appropriating this delicious cookie to the season of Hanukkah.

December 21, 2011

Weeknight Pizza

In this part of the South, it's rainy and spring-like. The clouds are low and gray; it feels more like March than Christmas week. Cars are backed up on major highway exits, their drivers desperate to finish last-minute shopping. The mere sight of wet, headlight-bleary traffic sparks exhaustion. But isn't it a wonderful feeling when you step out of that traffic-induced stress and into the comfort and peace of your own home? Especially when that home has cookbooks strewn over the coffee table and a North Carolina Christmas tree in the living room? And when one of the presents for you under that tree is a set of ladies' St. Louis Cardinals pajamas? This is how I felt last night when I decided to make a weeknight pizza.

The thing about a weeknight is that the actual post-work evening goes by very quickly. By the time you go to the gym, grocery, prep dinner and cook dinner, it's already late and the day is gone. My general cooking philosophy is to make as much from scratch as possible. If I had a farm or even a large yard, I would learn how to prepare my own meat and raise my own chickens. As a townhouse-dweller, I have to settle for local farm goods from my very well-stocked Harris Teeter. But for this weeknight pizza, I made the very serious decision to buy my own pizza dough rather than make my own.

December 19, 2011

Teaspoon Cookies with Lemon Curd

I have long loved the general aesthetic of a thumbprint cookie. So festive! Sugar and jam! Hooray! But I can't get over the fact that the baker must imprint his or her thumb into each freshly mounded cookie. What if he/she didn't wash his/her hands before thumbprinting? Thumbprints also last longer in baked cookies (unless you have big thumbs whose prints will really hold up through the baking) so I can only imagine the variety of underwashed thumbs that make contact with those delicious warm cookies. But is this really enough to turn me off to all thumbprint cookies for all time? Even thumbprint cookies with irresistible lemon curd?

This week, I offer a solution to the thumb-sticking-slightly-non-hygienic thumbprint cookie: the teaspoon cookie. More accurately, the half-teaspoon cookie. Replacing an oily thumbprint with the smooth back of a teaspoon warm from the dishwasher makes me feel great about the soundness of my own winter health, as well as the resurgence of thumbprint teaspoon cookies back into my life. The dough is a basic sugar cookie and the lemon curd is easy, quick, and refreshingly tart. The only very slight modification I might make to this cookie in the future is to add less milk (if any at all) to the dough. I felt like the dough was just a bit too tacky to roll out, even when refrigerated for 24 hours. However, the cookies baked up beautifully and the taste was a bit more cakey than your standard sugar cookie. Try different variations with the sugar base - add nutmeg, cinnamon, or lemon peel for a really standout flavor, or just let the simple sugar be your palette to a really fine lemon curd on top. You really cannot go wrong with lemon cookies, especially during a holiday that is overrun with chocolate and gingerbread. Try lemon for one of these sunny, Southern December days!

December 16, 2011

Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese

I learned to make macaroni and cheese in Germany. It was winter, it was dark, it was cold, and I was homesick. I had noodles, flour, butter, cheese, nutmeg, and milk. My first attempts were delicious, if a little rough around the edges. Sometimes I didn't get the right proportion of cheese to milk. I never made a roux, but just let the hot noodles melt the cheese. My version of stovetop mac and cheese was really a cross between macaroni and Käsespätzle, the delicious German noodles with Swiss cheese. My flatmates would sometimes wander into the kitchen during these experiments, peer into the pot, and wrinkle their noses good-naturedly. (What ARE you cooking? I would tell them that I was cold and missed the American South.) Once I had a whole enclave of American expats over for a macaroni and cheese party. I made two pounds of the stuff. We drank local beer and spoke English way into the night. It's the simple things in life, you know.
Leipzig, Germany, where I learned to make macaroni and cheese

These days, my macaroni and cheese is lots more sophisticated. I have gone through several recipes - baked mac and cheese with rich egg-based sauce, spicy mac and cheese with cheddar and chorizo, mac and cheese with bacon and onions, mac and cheese with truffle oil and mushrooms. But this recipe adapted from Cook's Illustrated is, quite simply, the gold standard. It's made with a simple eggless white sauce, two cheeses, and plenty of nutmeg and pepper. You can make a breadcrumb topping and pop it under the broiler if you like, but I personally prefer stovetop mac. It reminds me of Germany and it looks, smells, and tastes so good right from the pot.

I made this the other night for two of my gorgeous bridesmaids, both of whom ordered bridesmaid dresses that night for something like 70% off. From J. Crew. Delivery took 24 hours. That's the kind of retail magic this macaroni and cheese inspires. And if you ever find yourself in the middle of a cold, dark winter in the former East Germany and have a hankering for American taste, make this. It's a veritable pot of gold.

December 12, 2011

Potato, Leek, and Apple Soup

I love the Oxford comma. I love it even more now that the University of Oxford Writing and Style Guide has declared it unnecessary. I love that I can use it in this title and claim grammatical old-fashionedry because I've been using it, consciously and correctly, all my literate life. Different than the regular comma (which does save lives), the Oxford comma comes right before the coordinating conjunction in a list. I'm really glad I didn't title this "Potato, Leek and Apple Soup" because that would suggest that leek and apple are sort of one in the same. Or that there was some cool hybrid vegetable  made of leek and apple. But there is not. Leek and apple are so totally different; luckily, they go fabulously together as ingredients in the same soup. And with potato acting as the base flavor? Come on. There is nothing more satisfying.

Therefore, I have this amazing three-ingredient soup to share. December weekends are always so busy. There are Christmas pageant songs to direct, Christmas Oratorios to sing in double concerts, Christmas parties to visit, Christmas shopping to finish, Third Advent services to attend, dissertation edits to incorporate, and on and on and on. You'd think we could all work to spread out all this Decemberness but it does not work that way. The very best thing about all these activities being over, however, is that I'm finding myself at home on a Monday night for the first time in many weeks. So I made this soup.

December 8, 2011

Double Ginger Cookies for Eva and Carolyn

My twin nieces were born yesterday, full-on redheaded and full-on adorable. I cannot wait to meet these precious girls, teach them to match pitch, listen to good music, speak German, shop for shoes online...wait. Maybe those things are just for me. In any case, I am an auntie! And aunties are supposed to be good for things like that, correct? Eva and Carolyn are such lucky little ducks, to have not only amazing parents but also a slew of doting aunts, uncles, and grandparents who are all ready to spoil them silly.

So in honor of my gorgeous double ginger nieces, I am baking gorgeous double ginger cookies. I realize that the last post also centered on ginger(bread), but when you have twin ginger nieces, you can never have too much of the stuff. Plus fresh ginger simmering on the stove makes any kitchen smell oh-so-good and warm.

December 6, 2011

Gingerbread for St. Nicholas Day

Today is St. Nicholas Day. This is the day that German children put shoes outside their door to be filled with goodies by St. Nicholas - not our kitschy version of the present-toting Santa Claus, but the real St. Nicholas, the Early Medieval saint from Asia Minor. He helped the poor and secretly gave away coins and other gifts - allegedly in shoes left on doorsteps. St. Nicholas was the man.

I always loved St. Nicholas Day in Germany. Families come out to the downtown Christmas markets with their children for cones of hot fried almonds and little ceramic mugs of spiced wine. These markets are beyond spectacular. Each city, town, and village starts pulling out its Christmas grandeur around the first weeks of November so that by St. Nicholas Day they are in full swing. Some markets feature ferris wheels and carnival-like entertainment. Some are huge and resplendent, while others are tiny and humble. In North and East Germany, you can find giant Christmas pyramids (Weihnachtspyramide), which look like merry-go-round nativity scenes. Vendors sell densely rich loaves of Christstollen - a kind of German fruitcake - and lots of nuts and fruits. Everywhere is the smell of spicy sausage and mulled spices. Memories of these Christmas markets may just be the best thing about Germany, and every December I get lost in browsing the hundreds of snapshots I took during my two years there.

December 5, 2011

Baked Apricot-Pecan Hand Pies

My grandparents describe a "good school lunch" as a leftover biscuit, a leftover sweet potato, and a fried hand-pie. They would throw the leftovers in little lunch pails before school and that lunch would keep them full all afternoon. No concern about antioxidants or daily doses of fiber, just convenient, homemade leftovers. Yesterday for lunch, I had a bowl of leftover sweet potato soup, leftover soda bread, and a baked hand pie and it made me think about this rounded lunch combination. Hand-pies are a simple, humble food that can be made fancy if so desired; but they also serve a purpose. Portable and small, a hand-pie is a homemade dose of fruit, a little shot of sugar, and just enough carbohydrates to fuel an afternoon. 

December 2, 2011

Spinach Salad with Bacon-Shallot Vinaigrette

Happy Friday! Make this salad.

I love a good spinach salad. I've tried all sorts of combinations: blueberry spinach salad with goat cheese; strawberry spinach salad with red onions; apricot spinach salad with stilton cheese. See the pattern? Spinach is my favorite salad palette for combinations of fruit and onions or sweet peppers and bold cheese. A good spinach salad with homemade vinaigrette goes with anything. It's the veritable "little black dress" of food. But this spinach salad with sweet bacon-shallot vinaigrette can stand all alone. It needs no main dish to complement its truly delicious flavors. Warm bacon dressing is poured over a bed of cold spinach, wilting its leaves ever-so-slightly and giving the salad a distinctive autumn-comfort quality.