Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pumpkin Spice Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting and Spiced, Glazed Pecans

I adore pie at the holidays but want an alternative on my sideboard this year.  I thought a moist, decadent cake would be just the ticket and this one completely fit the bill.  Delicate in flavor with a sublime texture, this scrumptious cake, paired with the citrus-y, tangy icing and crunchy pecans is a winner!  If you don’t have all the spices on hand, you could substitute one tablespoon pumpkin pie spice, with little flavor impact.  You could also omit the cranberries, nuts and coconut if you prefer, but they had great texture, sweetness and some interest to the moist cake.  This is a rich dish and needs no accompaniment, other than a good cup of coffee.  Enjoy!
For the Cake:

2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
¼ tsp allspice
¼ tsp cloves
¼ tsp nutmeg
1 cup canola oil
1 cup sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
3 eggs
1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin
1/3 cup dried cranberries or currants
1/3 cup chopped pecans
2/3 cup flaked coconut

For the Frosting:

½ stick butter, softened
1 (8 oz.) block of reduced fat cream cheese
Zest of one orange
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp cream
1 Tbsp fresh orange juice
3 cups confectioners sugar

For the Glazed Pecans:

1/3 cup water
1/3 cup sugar
1 Tbsp pumpkin pie spice
½ tsp salt
dash cayenne pepper
1 tsp butter
2 cups pecan halves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray two 8” baking pans with cooking spray and dust with some flour.  Line the bottom of both pans with parchment, cut to size, and then spray again.  Set aside.  In a mixer, blend the oil and both sugars. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition and then add the pumpkin, mixing well.  In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, salt, baking soda and all the spices.  Add into the wet mixture, beating until smooth.  Add the cranberries, nuts and coconut and stir well.  Pour batter evenly into both pans and bake for 35 minutes.  Remove form oven and cook for 15 minutes before removing cakes from the pans.

Next, make the candied pecans. Start by changing the oven to 375 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment and use the teaspoon of butter to grease the parchment.   In a small saucepan, mix the water, sugar, salt and spices over medium heat and cook until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is simmering.  Add the pecans and cook until candied, about 2 minutes.  Spread out evenly on the prepared baking sheet, using a spatula to separate the nuts.  Bake for about 10 minutes and allow the nuts to cool completely on the parchment-lined baking sheet.  Set aside.

Finally, make the frosting by beating the butter and cream cheese together.  Add the orange zest, juice and vanilla and mix well.  Beat in the sugar and add the cream as needed until you achieve your desired texture. 

Once the cake has thoroughly cooled, place one layer on a cake server and use half of the frosting to completely cover, leaving the sides unfrosted.  Gently lay the other cake layer atop this and ice with the rest of the frosting, again leaving the sides unfrosted.  Lay the pecans all around the top of the cake in concentric circles.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fennel and Garlic-Crusted Pork with Roasted Autumn Vegetables

I first published this recipe on Blogcritics at

The glorious fall here in Virginia gets me craving roasted root vegetables, succulent pork and almost anything with apples.  There’s just something about the cool air and gently falling, brilliantly colored leaves that makes me think of comfort food.  I found a perfect pork loin roast at the market and that inspired me to get started.  I crusted the roast in a mix of fennel seeds, sea salt, peppercorns, garlic and olive oil, and then roasted the pork with a colorful and vitamin-rich array of root vegetables – parsnips, celery root, onions, butternut squash and sweet potatoes.  You could really use whatever winter veggies you had on hand that appealed to you.  I added some apples and thyme for flavor and then dressed the whole dish with some orange juice and zest just before serving.  It was a meal worthy of company for sure, even though it was very budget-conscious, healthy, and came together in a snap.   If you really wanted to make this dish special, brine the pork in a mix of water, sea salt, fennel and apple cider for a day and then remove it from the brine and allow it to dry for a day prior to preparing it. I wasn‘t thinking that far ahead, but I did crust the roast and allow it to sit for 24 hours before cooking so that the favors would fully absorb, but you could skip that step too if you were in a rush.  We paired it simply with a bottle of Dr. Loosen’s Austrian Riesling and an escarole, date, goat cheese and walnut salad.  It would also be great with sautéed winter greens.  The perfect finish to this meal was a gingerbread cupcake with citrus cream cheese icing.  Enjoy!  

3 lb. boneless pork roast  (may adjust size to suit)
2 Tbsp fennel seeds
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp coarse sea salt
1 Tbsp whole peppercorns
4 cloves of garlic, minced
8-10 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves removed from stems
2 sweet potatoes, cut into 4-6 pieces (skins on)
1 medium red onion, peeled and cut into chunks
½ butternut squash, seeded, peeled and cubed into 2” pieces
2 parsnips or carrots, peeled and cut into 6-8 pieces
½ celery root or turnip, peeled and cut into wedges
2 apples, cored and cut into wedges (skins on)
¼ cup apple cider
1 orange

Rinse the pork and pat dry.  Using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, mix and grind the fennel seeds, 1 Tbsp salt, and ½ Tbsp peppercorns.  Rub about ¼ cup of the olive oil over the pork and coat with the chopped garlic, then crust with the spice mixture and set aside.  If your pork roast is quite large, cut the veggies larger, and make them bite size if you’re using a small pork loin.  Place all the cut veggies and the apples in a 13x9 baking dish and toss with the remaining ¼ cup of the olive oil, the thyme, 1 tbsp of the salt and 1/2 tbsp of the pepper.  Lay the pork atop the root veggie mixture and pour the apple cider over the whole dish.  Roast in a 425 degree oven until the veggies are fork-tender and the pork registers at 138 degrees on a meat thermometer, about 15 minutes per pound.  If the roast is cooking faster than the veggies, remove the heat and allow it to rest while you finish the vegetables in the oven.  Either way, allow the meat to rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.  Remove the pork and place on a large serving dish.  Zest the orange directly over the roasted vegetables and then cut in half and squeeze the juice over the dish.  Toss the vegetables and season as desired with additional salt and pepper.  Place the vegetables around the pork on a platter and pour the pan sauce over both just before serving. Garnish with some whole thyme sprigs or fennel fronds if you wish.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chewy Gooey Butterscotch Blondies

I first published this recipe on Blogcritics as Chewy Gooey Butterscotch Blondies.

Sometimes you just need a rich, nostalgic, buttery, sweet treat.  Maybe it’s a rainy day?  Maybe you just got off the phone with your childhood friend?  Perhaps you got a new vintage-style apron and you're feeling inspired?  Whatever it is, when you need a sweet, salty, chewy, chocolate-y treat, that’s not exactly a brownie, and not really a cookie, these blondies are just the ticket.

l adapted this recipe from a 1972 cookbook from my grandmother’s church guild, so they’re the real deal!  I changed the wet/dry proportions just a bit to make them extra chewy and I added the butterscotch, nuts, and a bit more sea salt to give the dish some crunch and add that wonderful sweet/salty combination we all adore.    Thankfully, these only make a small pan, as you won’t be able to stop yourself and you don’t want to overindulge.  If need be, you can easily double the recipe and use a 13x9 baking pan, but please do so only if you’re having company or taking them to a bake sale!   These are great as a rich plated dessert, warm with some vanilla or butter pecan ice cream, but they’re also divine cooled and right out of the pan with a glass of cold milk or late harvest white wine.  Enjoy! 

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp sea salt
1/3 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
¾ cup butterscotch chips
¾ cup chocolate chips
½ pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350.  Melt butter in microwave in a medium bowl; use some of the rest of the stick to grease an 8x8 glass baking pan.  In a small bowl, mix flour, baking powder and salt.  Remove the butter from the microwave and mix brown sugar into the same bowl; whisk in the vanilla and beat in the egg.  Batter will be thick, but spread it evenly into a baking pan and sprinkle the chocolate and butterscotch chips (and pecans if using them) evenly over the batter.  Bake for 20-22 minutes.  It should be firm and golden brown, but don’t worry if it’s a little soft in the middle.  Cool in the pan and cut into squares before serving.  Try not to eat the whole pan in one sitting.  

Monday, October 17, 2011

Drunken Punkin' Chili!

I first published this recipe on Blogcritics as Drunken' Punkin' Chili.

I’m sneaky!  In the fall, I sneak pumpkin and butternut squash into everything possible!  I love the boost of fiber, flavor, color and vitamins that they impart to so many dishes.  Pumpkin is a wonderful addition to chili because the natural sweetness balances out the heat of the peppers and it thickens the chili beautifully!  Oh, and let’s not forget the beer!  While wine is a classic addition to many types of soup and stew, beer adds a really interesting flavor in the background.  I often use stout in beef stew, wheat beer in pork and cider with root vegetables, and lighter beers, like pilsner or lager, in many of my chili recipes. 

I made this dish to share with a vegetarian guest, so I opted to go meat-free with this version.  You could totally do it with ground turkey, turkey Italian sausage or even ground beef, and you could of course use chicken stock in lieu of the vegetable broth that I used.  Either way, it will be warming, rich, delicious, and spicy with amazingly complex flavors.  So good and easy enough to throw together between the kids’ soccer games on an autumn weekend.  Don’t be intimidated by the long list of ingredients – most are just spices and pantry staples that you probably already have.  Enjoy!

1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 jumbo sweet onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 red or yellow pepper, seeded and diced
2 poblano, jalapeno, or hatch peppers, seeded and diced
1 cup matchstick carrots, roughly chopped
2 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 Tbsp ground cumin
2 tsp Mexican oregano
1 tsp coriander
½ tsp cinnamon
2 Tbsp chili powder
1 bottle of beer (preferably lager or pilsner)
1 pkg frozen meatless crumbles (like Morningstar Grillers)
1 (15 oz.) can pureed pumpkin
1 (15 oz) can fire-roasted canned tomatoes
3 cups low sodium vegetable broth
1 (15 oz) can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15 oz) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 (15 oz) pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1 cup frozen sweet corn 
½ cup chopped cilantro
Cayenne or Chipotle Pepper to taste

Chop all your vegetables first and set aside.  In a large Dutch oven or stockpot, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the onions, peppers and garlic and sauté until softened.  Add the carrots and meatless crumbles, and continue sautéing for a few minutes.  Now, add the salt and pepper, and all the spices.  Continue to stir and sauté to fully toast the spices.  Deglaze the pan with the beer.  Simmer for a few minutes, uncovered, while you tidy up the kitchen.  Now, add half of the vegetable broth and the canned tomatoes and canned pumpkin.  Stir well and continue to simmer, raising heat to medium high.  Bring to a boil and reduce the heat, adding all of the beans and corn.  Cover, and simmer for at least 5 more minutes.  Remove the lid and simmer, uncovered for 5 more minutes, adding the rest of the broth as needed.  Add the chopped cilantro and stir in just before serving.

Taste the chili and season as desired with additional salt, pepper, hot sauce, cayenne or chipotle pepper.  Garnish with additional chopped fresh cilantro, sliced green onions, sour cream or greek yogurt and grated cheese.  This reheats beautifully and makes a great stuffed baked potato the second night for leftovers!

If you do choose to use ground meat rather than the meatless crumbles, sauté the meat first in the olive oil until browned.  Remove most of the fat, then add all the vegetables and continue with the recipe as directed. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Fun Array of Wine-Friendly Bites

I first published this article and recipes on Blogcritics as A Collection of Wine-Friendly Bites

It’s a gorgeous autumn day here in the Virginia countryside and we thought it would be the perfect excuse to go wine tasting and enjoy the bounty of the booming local wine industry.  I needed some easy, fun, wine-friendly snacks to make a perfect picnic for our friends, and I wanted to have a slightly kicked-up array of small bites that would pair well with all the wines offered by the local vineyards.  This was pretty easy and everyone enjoyed it; I hope you do too.  We had a spectacular day with wonderful weather, some wine surprises, indulgent food, and most importantly, great friends.  Our picnic included:

Caramelized Onion & Gruyere Flatbread (pairs with Chardonnay)
Fig & Blue Cheese Tartlets (pairs well with Cab or Port)
Parmesan Pesto Pinwheels  (pairs with Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Chianti) Manchego & Quince Paste Skewers (pairs with Rioja or Sparkling Wine)
Dark Chocolate-Covered Strawberries (pairs with Sparkling or Merlot)

I know that sounds like a lot of work, but thanks to refrigerated pastry dough (like Pillsbury Crescent rolls) , pre-made pesto sauce, and pre-made pizza dough, it was a breeze! 

Here are the recipes. They were very easy and the only one that was time-consuming at all was the Caramelized Onion Flatbread.  I like to make Caramelized Onions in big batches and thaw them when I need them.  They add a wonderful sweet and savory component to so many dishes that it’s handy to have them on-hand.  They’re not tough to make, but they do take about 45 minutes of stove-side patience.   I didn’t have any frozen this time around so I worked on the onions in the background while I made all the other dishes, then I finished the flatbread as my last step.  I didn’t include a recipe for Dark Chocolate-Covered Strawberries, because it is not really even a recipe.  Just buy a clamshell of nice whole, juicy strawberries and some of the dark chocolate microwave fondue often sold in the produce section near the berries.  Microwave the chocolate as directed and dip the strawberries in it, allowing them to cool and the chocolate to harden up on wax paper.  If you skewer each strawberry first with a toothpick, right through the center of the green top, you’ll make it easier on your guests to eat this treat without getting chocolate all over their hands.  Be sure to use dark chocolate for this as it will pair better with the wine and the sweetness of the berries is a really nice compliment to the bittersweet chocolate.  Depending on the size of your crowd (and the size of your appetite), you might also add some Brie with Apple Slices and Water Crackers, Mixed Spiced Nuts, Charcuterie, Shrimp Cocktail, Hummus and Pita Toasts with Vegetable Crudite, and Prosciutto-Wrapped Melon.  Again, none of those really require cooking, just strategic supermarket shopping and assembly skills!      

 Caramelized Onion and Gruyere Flatbread

2 sweet yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 ½ Tbsp Olive Oil, plus more for brushing the crust
1 tsp Kosher salt
Fresh black pepper
Sea Salt
1 tsp sugar
1 cup grated gruyere cheese
5 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed from the stems
Pre-made pizza dough for one thin crust pizza
2 tsp cornmeal
Handful of baby arugula leaves, roughly chopped
2 Tbsp Fresh Grated Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese

First, you need to caramelize the onions; chop them into thin slices.  Heat the olive oil over medium and add the onions, kosher salt and pepper. Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until golden brown.  Add the sugar and cook for another 15 minutes until they are a warm, tobacco-colored brown. Set aside.  You may do this part ahead of time.

Preheat the oven to 400.  Grate the cheese and prep the thyme leaves.  Line a large baking sheet with either silicon or parchment paper and sprinkle the cornmeal on it.  Roll or spread out your pizza dough and lay it on the lined pan.  Brush with olive oil and season with some salt and pepper and bake for about 5 minutes.  Remove the slightly baked crust from the oven and top with the gruyere cheese.  Next add the onions, finishing with the thyme, sea salt and more fresh pepper.  Return to the 400 degree oven for 10 more minutes.  Remove from the oven and add the arugula leaves and the grated parm/romano cheese and cut into squares with a pizza cutter.  This dish is good hot or warm – even at room temperature.  Enjoy!     

Manchego & Quince Paste Skewers

1 (10 oz.) container of Quince Paste (found in cheese shops and high-end grocers)
1 (6 oz.) wedge of Manchego Cheese
Handful of Baby arugula leaves
18 Toothpicks

This is really more about assembling than cooking.  It’s a snap.  First, put the quince paste in the freezer while you prep the other ingredients, just because it is a bit easier to manipulate if it is very cold.  Carefully cut the rind off the Manchego cheese and cut it into approximately 18 1” squares.  Next, remove the quince paste from the freezer, and cut it into an equal amount of small squares.  Now, skewer one arugula leave on a toothpick, add the quince paste square, and finish with the square of Manchego cheese.  Refrigerate until ready to serve.  This classic wine bite hailing from Spain is the perfect balance of sweet and salty and a nice compliment to many off-dry, sparking and lighter red wine. 

Pesto & Parmesan Pinwheels

1 pkg. Refrigerated pastry dough (such as Pillsbury Seamless Dough Sheet)
4 Tbsp prepared pesto sauce
Crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and Pepper to Taste
3 Tbsp good quality grated Parmesan Cheese

I adapted this recipe from one I found on the Pillsbury site, so I wanted to give them a shout-out for offering such a great collection of easy ideas for last minute entertaining. (  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.  Remove the dough from its container and roll it out into a large rectangle.  Using a pizza cutter, cut this into 4 smaller rectangles.   Brush each rectangle of dough with 1 Tbsp of pesto sauce.  Sprinkle with crushed red pepper, salt and pepper, and then about ½ Tbsp on each rectangle of the grated cheese. Roll each rectangle up into a fairly tight log, pressing on the edge with your finger to seal.  Now cut each roll into ¼ inch slices using kitchen shears or a sharp knife.  Place each pinwheel on the baking sheet, spaced evenly apart.  Sprinkle the tops with the remaining parmesan cheese and bake for 13 minutes or so until golden brown.  Cool for 3 minutes before removing from baking sheet.  Serve warm or at room temperature.  

The last recipe, Fig & Blue Cheese Tartlets, came directly from the Pillsbury website; check it out here:  I made this exactly as directed, but used Gorgonzola cheese for a milder flavor and used the Pillsbury Seamless Dough Sheet with circular cutouts. 

Enjoy them all, with or without some of your favorite vintage!