Kitchen troubles

sunsetrecipeTHE TROUBLE BEGAN HERE: an attractive photo in a cooking magazine for “pumpkin caramel tart with toasted hazelnut crust.” It was just before Thanksgiving, when I was considering what I could bring for dessert — and it was tempting.

I should have known better. Our Thanksgiving hosts, Nellie and Marc, had said their theme for the food this year was “tried and true.” Which really should be a theme every year for Thanksgiving, in my humble opinion. I mean, so many people look forward to those traditional foods — maybe with a few tweaks here and there —  why disappoint them?

So why couldn’t I just make a good old pumpkin pie — the kind I’d made many times before? But no, lured by the glossy photo and the promise of “ease,” I gave in to temptation.

Two days before Thanksgiving, I made the crust, and it really was pretty easy. So far so good.

My plan was to make the filling and bake the pie the next morning.  I’d just change one or two little things. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to add  a little sweet potato to the pumpkin filling? However, I hadn’t baked the sweet potato quite long enough, and it wouldn’t blend in, even when attacked with the mixer. Since lumpy filling just would not do, I walked to the store to buy another can of pumpkin puree.

The morning was gone by the time I got to the next step, making the caramel sauce. I melted sugar and swirled it in the pan till caramelized, then added the cream. No, not really cream. As I wanted a lactose-intolerant guest to enjoy this pie, I had decided to use coconut milk. But I had only light coconut milk, and I wasn’t sure this was going to work as well as cream. Oh well, I was NOT going to go back to the store. I mixed up the ingredients and put it in the oven.

The recipe said that the filling would be firm on the sides and slightly jiggly in the middle after 30 to 35 minutes. I checked after 30 minutes and panicked. It was totally liquid — like pumpkin soup! No way would it be firm in another 5 minutes. I turned the springform pan this way and that, closed the oven door and set the timer for 10 minutes. To my amazement, in 10 minutes the filling had actually set, and the tart was ready to come out of the oven.


But now there was a BIG problem. While some of the muddy-looking filling had slopped over the crust, a large sinkhole had developed — and weirdly, not even in the middle of the pie/tart, but off-center. ( I couldn’t fill the crater with whipped cream, as that would have defeated the no-lactose attempt.)  Meanwhile, I had tried to caramelize some hazelnuts for decoration but this effort failed too, and the nuts ended up crusty with sugar rather than the shiny  caramelized ones of the photo.

IN SHORT, THIS WAS NOT  the pretty pie of the glossy photo! Not at all. I debated starting over and making a regular pumpkin pie but I was thoroughly sick of being in the kitchen at this point. I gave up and went to my yoga class.

The next day — Thanksgiving — I opened the refrigerator and witnessed a semi-miracle. The contents of the pie seemed to have shifted so the sinkhole had diminished. It was now merely a depression. I still didn’t know how it would taste, but the kitchen seemed welcoming again as I cooked another batch of cranberry sauce and blanched some green beans. I nestled the pan into a box for its trip to the Thanksgiving feast.


By the time we got to Thanksgiving dessert, I wasn’t too worried — perhaps an effect of the abundant food and wine. So what if it wasn’t the world’s best or prettiest pie? I’d dressed up the top with candied (not caramelized) hazelnuts  and you could barely see the former sinkhole. What’s more, it tasted pretty darn good, and the slices quickly disappeared off the platter.

But would I make this recipe again? I already knew the answer before I even took one bite. No, no, and no.

I gave the magazine away right after I took the photo for this blog post.  I have learned my lesson. A pumpkin pie would have been just as good (allowing for my usual tweaking and minor experimentation) — and I wouldn’t have had all that stupid agonizing.

So I’ve resolved: from now on, I’m not going to be a sucker for the glossy photos and complicated new recipes– especially on the big occasions, like Thanksgiving.

Pumpkin pie

My new motto: Keep it simple. Keep it classic. Keep enjoying the cooking.

p.s. That filling that I couldn’t use because it seemed lumpy? I used it today in a classic little pumpkin pie that really was easy to make (and the filling wasn’t lumpy after all). The experimental part was a cornmeal crust that I saw on the wonderful pie blog, Nothing in the House. So good!










Filed under baked goods, dessert, fall


cranberry beans

I’d bought some fresh cranberry beans at the farmers’ market, which were very tasty and tender

IT’S THAT TRANSITION TIME — warm and summery one day, cool and rainy the next. During the cool rainy (and windy) days last week, I wished I had some soup to eat. . . but I didn’t feel like making my usual fall and winter soups. I didn’t want to rush the season.

Then I saw this article and recipe in the New York Times for soupe au pistou, the Southern French vegetable soup flavored with basil (usually a basil pesto without the pine nuts).

stringbeans, potatoesThe lovely thing about this particular recipe by David Tanis is that it uses all those vegetables that are in season right now, in September. However, it’s also very adaptable, and there are countless variations. For example, in a second batch I made, I cooked dried, soaked white beans instead of the cranberry beans. (Yes, I imagine you could substitute canned beans). And I couldn’t find romano beans, so I just used more regular green beans.

Another adjustment I made to the recipe was to skip the separate step of blanching the vegetables, and just cook them right in the pot (as one reader suggested), to my liking. I kept them bright and slightly crunchy for the first serving; the next day, when I reheated the soup, the vegetables were less bright but more tender. Both variations were good.

Some people use rice or macaroni instead of potatoes, or insist that tomatoes are essential if you want to call it soupe au pistou  (Here, for example, is a completely different recipe).

I like the potatoes, though, and I think the soupe is fine with or without the tomatoes. Since I’ve never had an traditional soupe au pistou, I can’t judge its authenticity except to say I like this soup, whatever you call it.

The dollop of basil pesto (without nuts, but if you have some usual pesto on hand, no one will object) adds a distinctive seasoning, but this soup is flavorful even without it (maybe then you should call it something else).

pistouReally, this soupe au pistou is so good that it led me right back into the soup-making season–without regrets.

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Filed under fall, Praise for other cooks, soup, vegetables

August fixin’s

pasta and vegAUGUST REMINDS ME of my childhood: the sticky hot humid days in Chicago, barely relieved by the big swamp cooler in the basement. We had no air conditioning and my two sisters and I slept in an upstairs attic-type room, catching what little breeze we could from the open window and a fan. A thunderstorm was an evening’s entertainment:  From our screened-in back porch, we’d listen to the thunder, watch the streaks of lightning and smell the oncoming rain.

But best of all, August meant we would pack up the car (I always had a case full of books) and leave the city for a rented cabin in Ephraim, Wisconsin, or South Haven, Michigan, where we’d swim in Lake Michigan (Yes, we did that at home too, but here it was even better) and eat fresh peaches and blueberries, corn and tomatoes, trout and smoked whitefish, and bakery white rolls. And cherry pie.

Wherever you are, fresh produce is abundant this month, and dinner doesn’t have to be salad. On these lazy days, I love to center an August meal around corn on the cob. Or potato and green beans in a vinaigrette. Or cherry tomatoes, as in the photo above, roasted (or sauteed) with some garlic and oil and sprinkled with basil, to dress a pasta. With a side of green beans with lemon zest, and a simple salad with beets (dressed in another vinaigrette) and hazelnuts, it was a light but satisfying meal that didn’t take long at the stove.

blackberry cobbThis kitchen blog began in 2009 with Blackberry Cobbler No. 8, a recipe for the eighth version I had made of blackberry cobbler.

This week my daughter and I picked  blackberries (it’s been unusually hot here so it’s almost end-of-the-season) for a cobbler and decided that the No. 8  version is still hard to beat, with very tender biscuits with a touch of cornmeal. There’s not too much sugar in it, and a dollop of ice cream on the warm cobbler will suit it just fine.


Filed under dessert, fruit, musings, summer, supper time, vegetables

Whatever. . .

WHATEVER IS FRESH  — from your garden or your neighbor’s garden, from a farmers’ market,  fruit-and-vegetable stand, u-pick farm or along a path, growing edible and wild — well, that’s what you should be eating right now.

For me, the vegetables and herbs lately include tender carrots and stringbeans (green or yellow), tiny new potatoes, nice little cauliflowers, fresh garlic, cherry tomatoes, basil, parsley, tarragon and mint. And summer fruit: Bluecrop blueberries that I picked at a wonderful organic blueberry farm (Yes, I may have to make the seasonal favored coffeecake, Blueberry Boy Bait ), blackberries from the bushes that grow wild here, and melons — watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew — from a produce stand.

July salad

My July salad: tiny potatoes, green and yellow stringbeans, carrots, cherry tomatoes and green onions in a mustard-vinaigrette

What to do with them? Well, it’s a theme I keep coming back to — salad. It doesn’t require much cooking, and it’s perfect for summer eating — lunch, dinner, picnics, road trips, snacks. . .

Here are a couple of my favorite previous posts about summer salad, for more ideas:

Salads, salads salads

Summer’s salad days


Filed under salad, summer

A plum welcome to summer


I HAVE WRITTEN BEFORE about the marvelous Santa Rosa plums of early summer, and my gratitude to Luther Burbank for developing them. But again I feel the need to praise these plums. If I were to have just one fruit tree, it might have to be a Santa Rosa plum, not only for their deliciousness at the start of summer, but also because they are so hard to find in the market.

I had enough, briefly, to eat plenty of plums au naturel and to make British cookbook writer Nigel Slater’s brilliant plum tabbouleh. (I did substitute a pinch of crushed red pepper for the small red chile he calls for). I even made some plum crumble with a topping of butter, brown sugar, flour and hazelnuts.


The plum tabbouleh drew me back to one of my favorite books, Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard, and to Nigel Slater’s lovely homage to plums.

“When I find the perfect plum, jelly-fleshed and incandescently ripe, its golden skin flashed with crimson freckles, I make a great fuss of it,” he writes. “I have even been known to get out a small plate and a napkin. I eat slowly, imagining time stopped. More usually, I come across such a fruit without warning, having little alternative but to eat it from the hand, spitting the pit into the long grass below.”

And why are these plums so hard to find? Although Slater is speaking of Britain and not of Santa Rosa plums, I think his sentiments could apply to the U.S. as well.

“It breaks my heart to think of the plum orchards we have lost in the last two decades,” he writes, “but what else can a farmer do when the crop is no longer profitable, consumers have more interest in peaches and nectarines, and the stores continue to sell imports even during our own brief season? I salute the British plum grower.”

Well, I salute all plum growers, and in particular my friends John and Cathy who gave me the pleasure of a few days full of plums from their Santa Rosa plum tree. What a happy welcome to summer!


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Filed under fruit, musings, Praise for other cooks, salad, summer

Taste of Sicilia

sicilia insalata_0001As we’re getting ready for a trip to Sicily, I was reading through a little travel journal I kept from a visit there eight years ago, when I went to research lemons. I came across this page with a tuna-lemon-olive oil salad with artichoke hearts and green beans that I made in a lemon orchard agriturismo above Sicily’s Lemon Riviera, on the eastern side of the island (we are going there again!). We usually had a kitchen in Sicily, so we could shop in the markets, and we ate some variation of this salad nearly every day we were there — and with tuna so good and produce so fresh and delicious, we never tired of it.

This salad (with variations) became a standard once we were home, too. You may have to substitute Meyer lemons or preserved lemons for the Sicilian lemon if you want to eat the lemon peel, but otherwise –except for the gorgeous views of Mount Etna and the Mediterranean — it translates well, especially in the spring.

tuna insalata

I’m sure we always had bread or breadsticks with “My Sicilian lemon insalata (good for il prazo–lunch–or antipasta). The bottom line reads: “good with Etna red or white, iced tea or lemonade.”

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Filed under salad, spring, Uncategorized, vegetables

Celebrating with lemon tart

dad on st patsIN HONOR OF ST. PATRICK’S DAY, I’m including the photo above of my father celebrating the occasion as the anniversary of the day he arrived in America in 1939 — and was welcomed by a band and a parade! (See last year’s post for more of the story.)

My family always celebrates the day, and I’ve come to think of it as a kind of holiday to celebrate immigration. It has never meant more to me than this year, because last fall I went to Mannheim, Germany, the city where my father and his family lived, and attended a commemoration of the deportation of Jews from the southwestern region of Germany (Baden) to a concentration camp in France on October 22, 1940. Fortunately my father had the foresight to get out of Germany before it was too late, and the great luck to come to America — and that is something to celebrate.

So what would I make (besides more of those filo pastries) to go with a bubbly beverage or two?

I am not a great fan of the “traditional” corned beef and cabbage (my father had corned beef on rye, which was much better!).

Since I hadn’t made a pie for last Saturday’s PI Day I decided to make a lemon tart. It’s so rich that I rarely make it. . . but what better occasion than this? Now, if I just can find something green to decorate it. . .

lemon tart

For more on lemons and lemon recipes, see


First you make the lemon curd. This is not a traditional method of making lemon curd, but it is foolproof — as long as you keep stirring and don’t let it boil.


1 cup sugar
9 Tablespoons butter, softened
3 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 Tablespoon grated lemon zest

1. Cream the sugar and butter together with an electric mixer until smooth, then add eggs and egg yolks and beat again.
2. Mix in the lemon juice. The mixture will look curdled, but don’t worry — it will come back together when heated.
3. Put the mixture in a medium saucepan and heat over moderately low heat, stirring constantly. Do not let the mixture boil.
4. Cook until thickened — when the mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon. This will take about 10 to 15  minutes (or maybe a little less).
5. Take the mixture off the heat, and stir in the lemon zest. Let the curd cool, stirring every once in awhile to prevent a skin from forming. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator until ready to use.

This pastry shell for the tart is an easy pat-in-the-pan version.


  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • ¼ teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
  • ¼ cup confectioners sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 ¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon flour
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter sides and bottom of a tart pan
  2. In a medium bowl, combine butter, vanilla, confectioners sugar and salt
  3. Add enough flour to form a smooth, soft dough.
  4. Place dough in center of tart pan and press evenly on bottom and sides.
  5. Place tart pan in the center of the oven and bake until dough is firm and lightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool at least 10 minutes before filling.

Put the two together for your lemon tart:

Fill the tart with cooled lemon curd (you may have a little leftover, which is nice for other things, and will keep well in the freezer). Put tart in the middle of an oven preheated to 325 degrees. Bake 15 minutes. Remove to a wire rack and let cool. Refrigerate well before serving. If you have fresh berries, they’re nice for decoration.


Filed under Uncategorized

Börek? Not really.

Claudia Turgut’s blog, A Seasonal Cook in Turkey, is often an inspiration, and it especially called out to me last week, when I wanted to make a special appetizer to share at Jennifer’s house while we watched the Oscars together. I was considering the luscious looking savory pastry called  börek that Claudia made with various fillings and served at teatime.

But I was not in Istanbul, so how could I possibly make börek?

It wasn’t the filling that was the problem; it was the lack of yufka, that special dough that comes in big round sheets. You can easily buy yufka fresh in Turkey, it seems — but not so here. The closest you can come (unless perhaps you are near a Turkish market) is frozen filo dough, but that is thinner and smaller and rectangular — and just not the same.

The answer? I couldn’t make genuine börek, but I could make my own approximation of it — and as soon as everyone tasted it, no one seemed to care if it was genuine or not.

Claudia’s recipe called for a filling of sauteed onion and parsley, but since I didn’t have parsley, I  added some spinach and crumbled feta cheese to a lot of sauteed onions, and a little salt, pepper and cayenne to taste.

The filling

I unwrapped a couple sheets of thawed filo dough, brushed them with a mixture of melted butter and oil. After my first attempt, I decided that two sheets of filo was still too thin, so I added a third sheet, with another light brush of the butter/oil mix. Then I scattered the filling across the sheets of dough.

making borek

Then I rolled it up the long way, and cut it into pieces.



The pastries on a cookie sheet just before baking

I mixed an egg yolk with a few drops of water and brushed them on the pieces, then sprinkled them with sesame seeds, the usual ones and black ones  (poppy seeds are good too) before popping into a 350 degree oven. They took about 20 minutes or so before they were golden brown and smelling delicious. I took some of them out just a bit early so I could reheat them at Jennifer’s house that evening.


Mmmmm……they weren’t real börek, it’s true — but they were irresistible!


Filed under baked goods, Praise for other cooks, Uncategorized, vegetables

Mandarin love

mandarinsWHAT COULD BE MORE APPEALING in winter than the brightly glowing, highly fragrant little orange globes called mandarins? They come in various sizes, some with seeds and some without, some noted for their juiciness and others for their easy-to-peel “zipper” skins — and the best of them with a vivacious flavor and lively balance of tart and sweet.

If you are lucky enough to be in California during mandarin season, you can sample many different varieties — and buy them very fresh, from a farmers’ market or fruit stand. Otherwise, though you may have a smaller number of varieties to choose from, you can usually find good mandarins at the grocery to brighten your table and your winter diet.

Kishu mandarin

Kishu mandarins are tiny, seedless mandarins which peel easily, making it extraordinarily easy to eat half a dozen or so before you know it. These come from Churchill Orchard in Ojai.

So what’s the difference between mandarins and tangerines?

Citrus expert Tracy Kahn, curator of the Citrus Variety Collection at UC Riverside, had this to say about the subject:

“Mandarins refer to a group of cultivars and includes Clementine and Satsuma and many other mandarins. . . .  The word tangerine is often used interchangeably with the word mandarin but actually the term tangerine was coined for brightly colored sweet mandarins that were originally shipped out of the port of Tangiers, Morocco, to Florida in the late 1800s and the term stuck.  Another interesting thing about mandarins is that we now know that there were three basic citrus types (mandarin, citron and pummelo) and that others that we think of as basic types or species (sweet oranges, sour oranges, grapefruits) are actually ancient hybrids or backcrosses of these. Also, many of the cultivars that we think of as mandarins or tangerines may in fact not be true mandarins, but actually mandarin hybrids.”

Mandarin-gin cocktails

Page mandarin cocktails and Kishu mandarins in the bowl.      Photo by S. L. Sanger

Whatever you call them, they’re marvelous!

Steve and I had the good fortune to go to Anna Thomas’s home in Ojai for lunch the other day (last year I wrote about lunch at Anna’s here), and it turned into a mandarin appreciation day. Along with a great soup-and-salad lunch,  Anna made refreshing mandarin-gin cocktails, using Page mandarins–a vibrant juicy variety.  For dessert, she offered a big bowlful of the exceptional Kishu mandarins with dark chocolate. Then we all drove off to nearby Churchill Orchard to buy a big box of Kishu mandarins to share!

The cocktail recipe Anna used is from Henry of Ventura Spirits, and features the company’s Wilder gin, made with local botanicals including sage and mandarin peel. If you have trouble finding this gin or Page mandarins, make substitutions as necessary.

Henry’s Wilder Gin and Page Mandarin Cocktail:

For each drink, mix:

1 oz. fresh lime juice
2 oz. fresh Page mandarin juice
½ oz. agave nectar (Henry uses ½ maple syrup+ ½ water)
1 ½ oz. Wilder gin
pour over ice, add splash of seltzer or soda or mineral water, and enjoy.

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Filed under fruit, musings, Praise for other cooks, Uncategorized, winter

Shortcut salad


shortcutsaladI had a head of cauliflower that was calling out to be roasted, so I took out a cookie sheet, set the oven to 400 degrees and cut off the woody parts of the vegetable. Then I broke and cut the cauliflower florets into small pieces, mixed them with a bit of olive oil and salt and spread them on the sheet, roasting until they were browning and a little crispy on the edges. That brings out and mellows the flavor of the cauliflower.

It would be easy to gobble up a whole head of cauliflower that way, but I resisted as I needed those tasty florets to go a little further.  I had in mind using them to make a nice healthy salad that I could put in the fridge so we could eat it for lunch or a snack.

Hmmm, wouldn’t it be good to have some chewy nutty farro as a base? –and some roasted peppers for color and flavor? Farro, an ancient strain of hard wheat, isn’t difficult to cook, but it does take a bit of time, and I just happened to have Trader Joe’s 10-minute farro on hand, as well as a jar of roasted yellow and red peppers.

shortcut2I am usually reluctant to admit that I use some shortcuts, but that is pretty silly. Why not use shortcuts if the ingredients are healthy and they make your life a little easier?

shortcut3The finished salad also had chopped green onion, parsley and mint and a dressing made of my favorite trio: lemon juice, olive oil and salt.

Variations? Of course! You could add beans, a different grain, a different vegetable, other herbs, vinegar in place of lemon, etc. etc. In fact, I had some leftover salad and I added sliced Kalamata olives, some pickled beets (also from a jar) and more lemon juice to freshen it up — and the second variation was good too.

I just wish I always had a vegetable-based salad or soup in the fridge for the best healthy fast food. It’ll probably never happen, but if shortcuts help me toward that goal, I’m all for them!


Filed under salad, soup, Uncategorized, vegetables