Tuesday, December 1, 2009


For foodies, the holidays can be summed up in one word, Wassail. It is a greeting, a drink and a celebration all in one.

In Saxon times the word was hail was used to greet someone, it meant “be in good health”. In the twelfth century the salutation was drinc hail, drink good health. Later, the word became used for the drink the toast was offered, especially spiced ale or wine during Christmas.Wassailing continued into nineteenth century and other drinks, like eggnog, became popular.

Whether you toast with cider, muled wine or eggnog, the warmth of the holidays begins when family and friends gather around the hearth with glass in hand. Everyone not only dreams of sugar and spice, but drinks it. Joy comes to all.

Happy Holidays!

Most liquor stores carry some kind of bottled wassail around the holidays, which is great as a gift or a quick drink for a party. If you have the time, and want a sweet smelling home, try one of the following wassail recipes.

Wassail (quick and non-alcohol)
4 black tea bags
5 quarts water plus 2 cups
4 (46oz) cans of orange juice
2 (46oz) cans of apple juice
4 (46oz) cans of pineapple juice
Steep tea in 2 cups of water for 5 minutes. Remove tea bags. Pour tea into a large soup pot. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a simmer. Serve warm.
Yuletide Wassail
6 apples, cored
½ cup brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 bottles of ale
1 cup of red wine
Fill apple centers with equal amounts of brown sugar. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Combine remaining ingredients and simmer. Pour wassail in a large punch bowl or cock pot along with the baked apples.
Traditional English Wassail
6 apples, cored
½ cup brown sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
10 cloves
10 all spice berries
1 bottle of Madeira wine
3 bottles of ale
6 eggs, separated
Fill apples with brown sugar and bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Combine cinnamon sticks through ale in a large soup pot and let simmer. Separate eggs. Beat yolks until they are light yellow and creamy. Beat whites until soft peaks form. Gently combine beaten yolk and whites together. Add 1 to 2 cups of the wassail slowly to the eggs, this is tempering. Now, add the eggs to the wassail. Serve with the baked apples in a punch bowl or crock pot.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


If you are like me and had the pleasure of seeing Julie and Julia recently your inner French Chef may have been stirred to open Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

In it you will find no glossy photos just straight forward cooking instructions. Instructions from a trusted friend guiding you over stews, vegetables and desserts. As I poured over the 600 plus pages I decided to start at the beginning – soups. First on the list was Potage Paramentier, potato and leek soup.

This soup is a wonderful stand alone soup or a superb base for a more hearty soup. And of course, the base of Vichyssoise. By adding cream, milk or half and half and chilling a bit, you have an American innovation based on a French dish.

Historians credit Louis Diat, a chef at the Ritz-Carlton in new York City in the early 1900's. In a magazine article Diat states that he remembers cooling Potage Paramentier off be adding cream to it and how delicious it was. He named the soup in honor of his home town in France, Vichy.

Vichyssoise became increasingly poplar throughout New York City that department store cafes would feature Vichyssoise all summer long paired with a slice of apple pie. So, why not explore your inner French chef American style with Vichyssoise. Most of all, share Vichyssoise with a friend, trust me, they will thank you.

3 leeks, washed and sliced
3 large potatoes, peeled and diced
4 cups of chicken broth
a dash of salt and pepper
1 cup of half and half
chives to garnish
Place leeks, potatoes and broth in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes or until vegetable are tender. Add salt and pepper. Cool slightly and puree in food processor. Slowly add half and half. Chill. Garnish with chopped chives and enjoy.

National Vichyssoise (vi-she-'swaz) Day is November 18
Photo – on the left is Potage Paramentier and on the right is Vichyssoise

Friday, October 2, 2009

Bug Appetit

As the days continue to get shorter and cooler thoughts seemingly gravitate to Halloween. A season filled with haunted houses, jack-o-lanterns and chocolate – chocolate covered insects. Now, that's creepy.

When I realized that October 14th was National Chocolate Covered Insect Day I just had to get my hands on some. My search began on line. There I found a few sites that sold small individual packets to retailers by the case. Too much for the culinary curious. So, I called a few local candy stores and came up empty handed. I finally found a place that sold in small quantities. Educational Innovations (http://www.teachersource.com/) sells a package of 4 chocolate covered insects for $2.95. I placed my order and they arrived soon after. And no one, I mean no one, wanted to try them. Come on, just one. You will never know until you try.

I admit it is a little creepy looking and the thought of eating one is scary. Face your fear. So, I took a deep breath, chewed, tasted and swallowed a chocolate covered insect that tasted a little like popcorn, chocolate covered popcorn. It's a good thing I like chocolate. You never know until you try.

Fun Bug Facts

Crickets (per 100 grams) equals
13 grams of protein
5 grams of carbs
5 grams of fat

Over 1500 different species of insects have been reported as edible

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


I have made numerous pizzas at home from scratch and was never really wowed by the results until I used a pizza stone. My pre-pizza stone days left me with soft soggy torn dough. I just knew there had to be a better way and I found it with a pizza stone. A pizza stone is a must for all pizza connoisseurs.

The basic idea of a pizza stone is to draw out the moisture and distribute the heat the heat evenly across the pizza dough. The end result is a light evenly crisp crust.

A few tips for using a pizza stone:
1. Always place your stone in a cold oven, failure to do this may result in thermal shock and breakage.
2. Allow the stone to heat thoroughly, about 15 minutes, before placing your pizza on it.
3. A pizza paddle (or peel) is the best tool to transfer your pizza to and from the stone. A dusting of cornmeal or flour will insure easy transferring.
4. Allow the pizza stone to cool completely before washing with warm water - no soap.

So, celebrate National Cheese Pizza Day this September 5th with your own brick oven pizza at home with a pizza stone. Buon Appetito!

Pizza Margherita
Chef Rafaelle created a special pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and basil (red, white and green - the Italian flag) in honor of Queen Margherita in 1889. It quickly spread through Naples and the world.

Yield: one large or two small. Divide dough and toppings in half if making two pizzas

Basic Dough
1 package rapid dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup oil

3/4 cups pizza sauce
1 tomato, sliced
6 oz. mozzarella cheese, cubed
10 basil leaves, torn
salt and pepper

Stir the yeast, sugar and 3/4 cup of warm water together and let set for 5 minutes. Place flour and salt in food processor. Slowly add yeast mixture and oil to flour. Pulse until dough has formed. Transfer dough on to a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes. Spray a large bowl with cooking spray and place dough into bowl. Turn and coat dough with cooking spray. Cover with damp cloth for 30 minutes. Punch down and cover for another 30 minutes.

Place cold stone in oven for 15 minutes at 450. Roll and shape dough on a floured surface and place on a floured pizza paddle. Add toppings. Slide onto pizza stone. Bake for 20 minutes.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Soft Shell Crabs

I have a confession to make. I, Charlene, have never eaten a soft shell crab. The thought of eating the whole crab truly frightened me. Now, most would think, so what. But being a native of Maryland this may be a culinary sin. You see Maryland is Crabs. Steamed crabs, crab cakes and soft shell crabs are the cornerstone of Maryland cuisine.

So, this weekend I faced my fear and ate my first soft shell crab. Wow, I was missing something special.

One of the specials on the menu was Soft Shell Tempura. Tempura is a Japanese dish of deep-fried seafood, meats or vegetables. Tempura batter is basically ice cold water, flour and egg. This method produces a fluffy and crisp product. And true to form, my first bite was pure crunch. A couple more bites had me tasting the meat, the sweet and succulent crab meat every seafood lover craves. Traditionally, soft shell sandwiches are served on white bread with lettuce and tomato. My bread was toasted and was served with a tomato sauce made with mayo, crushed tomatoes, chile powder and lime. Both great choices for this sandwich.

Soft shell crabs are Blue Crabs that have molted. The shedding of the old shell is the growing process of a hard shell crab. The crab remains soft for about 2-3 hours after molting. After which the shell turns hard again. Freshness is key to enjoying soft shell crabs.

Preparation for eating starts with removing the face, eyes, apron and lungs. This should be done just before cooking. They are then dipped in batter and fried.

I know hot dogs and hamburgers are at the top of the list for summertime foods but make some room for soft shell crabs. If you live along the eastern coastline they are available from May through September. Go ahead – there is nothing to be afraid of.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


I came across some Jordan Almonds the other day and I was instantly transported back to my childhood. I remember an array of small pastel tulle with stain ribbons containing these candy coated almonds being a major part of many family celebrations.

But what, if anything, do these confectionery gems with a powerful crunch mean? I knew they had to be more than just candy.

And I was correct. They do have meaning. Jordan Almonds are dragées (dra-ZHAY), a form of confectionery that is used for decorative or symbolic purposes in addition to consumption.

In Greek weddings, Jordan almonds are called koufetta. An odd number of almonds are placed in small bags and given to each guest. Odd numbers are used because it is indivisible and symbolizes the couple will share everything and remind undivided.

In Italian weddings, Jordan almonds are called bomboniere. Five almonds are used and signify five wishes: health, wealth, happiness, fertility and longevity.

Both traditions are a sweet and worthy pursuit for all newlyweds. So, if you chip a tooth on one know that it was, after all, for everlasting love.

The Jordan Almond Poem
Five sugared almonds for each guest to eat
To remind us that life is both bitter and sweet.
Five wishes for the new husband and wife -
Health, Wealth, Happiness, Children and a Long Life!

Colors for Other Occasions
White or Ivory for Weddings and Bridal Showers
Silver for 25th Anniversaries
Gold for 50th Anniversaries
Light Blue, Pink, Yellow, White or Ivory for Baby Events
Red for Graduation
Green for Engagements

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Farmers' Markets

The official start of summer is fast approaching and nothing says summer like farmers' markets.

The first American farmers' markets were modeled after the ones in Europe. Farmers came to town with loaded wagons and sold their produce to city folk. Tables, stands, baskets, bushels and umbrellas were displayed and direct sales to the people became a weekly event.

The first market in US history was in 1634 in the English colonies in Boston under Governor John Winthrop. Twenty eight years later the city built a permanent wooden building. One of the best planned markets in the colonies was in Philadelphia. William Penn's city plan included a market along High Street. It was later renamed Market Street and is still one of the principal locations for business and commerce in Philadelphia.

Throughout the country, in both small and large cities, you can find and enjoy farmers' markets. They are worth searching out and experiencing summers bounty and a bit of history.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Cupcake Fun

A few weeks ago a friend gave me Hello, Cupcake! by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson. I was thrilled. I had my eye on this book for months. So, I was ready and eager to create something fun and surprising with cupcakes posthaste. My daughter's birthday was on the horizon and seeing she loves pasta the spaghetti and meatballs cupcakes were the perfect choice.

The materials lists, instructions and photos for each cupcake in the book were very well written and easy to understand. The book has about 50 cupcake designs. They are divided into 6 chapters, such as animals and holidays. In addition, there is one chapter on technique and one chapter with recipes.

I do, however, have one sticking point and that is the suggestion to use ziplock bags for pastry bags. I have tried this in the past and they are just not strong enough, or I have a firm grip on these bags, which results in breakage. Breakage is not a good thing with colored frosting. I would stay with traditional reusable pastry bags or disposable ones. It is worth the extra costs.

All in all I love this book and the designs. It is fun and imaginative. After you try a few cupcake designs you may never look at Ferrero Rocher chocolate or caramel sauce the same way again.

Hello, Cupcake! by Karen Tack and Alan Richardson, paperback $15.95, 2008.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Food Holidays

I just could not decide on a subject for April. There are so many things to try and taste. So, I finally decided to make it a weekend celebration - April 24 thru 26 is packed with food holidays.

April 24th is National Pigs in a Blanket Day

April 25th is National Zucchini Bread

April 26th is National Pretzel Day

I will develop and test recipes for the above holidays in the days ahead. I will post them soon.

Fast forward a few days. . . Here they are. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Pigs in a Blanket

I have to admit, I have never made Pigs in a Blanket. Of course, I have heard of them and even tasted them, but never made, until now. They are fairly simple, just make sure you allow ample room between each hot dog, and you will have perfectly cooked pigs in a blanket. Other popular variations of meat wrapped in dough are devils on horsebacks, wiener winks and kilted sausages.

1 refrigerated crescent dough
2 tablespoons mustard
4 slices of American cheese
1 package of 8 hot dogs

Preheat oven to 350. Open and roll out 8 crescent dough pieces. Flatten and stretch a little. Spread mustard on each piece of dough. Cut each slice of cheese in half diagonally and place over mustard. Place each hot dog on the bottom part of each dough and roll tightly. Press to seal. Place on cookie sheet. Leave at least 2 inches between each hot dog to insure proper cooking.
Bake for about 10 minutes or until golden.

Yield: 8

Zucchini Bread

What can I say about zucchini bread, love it or leave it, it is always moist, plentiful during the summer and, if you add enough extras, delicious.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 tablespoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 (8oz.) crushed pineapple
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350. Combine flour through salt in a large mixing bowl and set aside. Mix zucchini through walnuts in a medium bowl and stir until combine. Carefully add wet ingredients to dry. Stir until smooth. Pour into a greased loaf pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes. Cool and remove from pan.

Yield: 1 loaf

Soft Pretzels

Most people associate pretzels with Germany but Italy may be the birthplace of the endearing pretzel. According to Bryan Bunch and Alexander Hellemans book The History of Science and Technology, in 610 A.D. an Italian monk baked strips of dough, which were folded to resemble arms crossing, as a reward to children who learn their prayers. They were called pretiola, in means little rewards in Italian.

1 (1/4 oz) package of dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup warm water
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
kosher salt

Preheat oven to 475. Put yeast, sugar, salt, butter and water in a medium mixing bowl. Stir until smooth. Let set for 5 minutes. Add flour. Knead dough on a floured surface until smooth. Place in a clean bowl and cover and let rise for 1 hour. After dough has risen, punch down and knead for 1 or 2 minutes. Divide into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into 12 inch long rolls and shape into pretzel. Place each pretzel onto cookie sheet. Dab a little water over each pretzel and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown.

Yield: 12 pretzels

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What's in a Club?

Recently, while sharing brunch with my niece and her mother, I was challenged with a food question. “What exactly is in a club sandwich?” My first response was bacon. Another thought that circulated was three slices of bread. So, being a personal chef, I had to probe farther.

My searching lead me first to the legendary birthplace of the club sandwich, which was The Saratoga Club-House in New York in 1894. It was made with toast, butter, mayonnaise, bacon, chicken and tomato. The first recipe published was in Good Housekeeping Everyday Cookbook by Isabel Gordon Curtis in 1903. The recipe calls for 2 toasted slices of bread, turkey or chicken, bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayo. And at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904, three restaurants featured club sandwiches.

As with many recipes, items are added and omitted to satisfy the taste of the region. Some clubs add sprouts, avocado and mustard. And both single and double layers can be found on menus across the land. My personal survey of recipes on the web and cookbooks lead me to one common theme – toast. Now, I am not saying any sandwich made with toast equates to a club but it does seem to be the one item that is constant with the club sandwich. And that leaves plenty of creativity to the chef, which is the joy of all chefs and sandwich connoisseurs.

Monday, February 2, 2009


Anyone care for a good dip? No, not the pool, it is February. I'm talking hearty creamy dips. But, if we are not careful, dips can be unforgiving when they are made with mayo, sour cream or cream cheese and accompanied by chips. There are scores of dips that are full of flavor and healthy too. I like to call them skinny dips.

Hummus, for example, is a super dip. It is an excellent source of protein, low in fat, high in fiber and an excellent source of folic acid. This popular food can trace its roots to the Middle East. It is made with chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), oil, garlic and lemon juice. Others ingredients can be added to this classic recipe to enhance its flavor dimension.

Another great base for healthy dips are black beans. They too are high in fiber, low in fat and an excellent source of protein. Of course, these dips are only as healthy as their dippers. So, choose veggies to complete your skinny-dipping pleasure.

Classic Hummus
Smooth taste with just the right amount of lemon

1 15.5 oz can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons tahini
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt

Place chickpeas in a food processor and process until smooth. Slowly and remaining ingredients and process until smooth.

Yield: 1 cup
tahini can be found in the International section in most supermarkets. It can be omitted if you cannot find it.

Black Bean Dip
Bold flavor combination

2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can of diced tomatoes
1 cup plain no-fat yogurt
2 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon salt

Place beans in a food processor and process until smooth. Add the remaining ingredients and process until smooth.

Yield: 2 cups

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Cakes Cooked the Slow Way

If you were one of the lucky recipients of a slow cooker this holiday don’t walk but run to your pantry and cook a cake in this wondrous appliance.

Yes, I said cake. I am still forever thankful each time I slow cook meats and stews to tender perfection in one of my (now 3) slow cookers. But cake? So, I searched and came up with a gooey chocolate cake worth the almost 3 hours from start to finish. The slow cooking process produces a rich chocolate sauce beneath a brownie like cake. I think I have said enough. Dust off your slow cookers.

Slow Cooker Chocolate Mocha Cake
Deep rich chocolate cake with a gooey sauce

5 quart slow cooker and 1 1/2 quart souffle dish

1 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¾ cup sugar
¼ cup cocoa powder
½ cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
¼ cup vegetable oil
¾ cup brown sugar
¼ cup cocoa powder
1 cup hot coffee

Spray souffle dish with cooking spray and set aside. Combine the first 8 ingredients. Pour and spread batter evenly into souffle dish. Place dish in slow cooker pot on high setting. Mix cocoas and brown sugar and sprinkle over cake batter. Pour coffee over cake batter. Cover and cook for 2 1/2 hours. Let cool in cooker for 20 minutes. Carefully remove souffle dish. Serve warm with or without ice cream.