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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Christmas coffee cakes - Part One

This is a blog in two parts. The first, a little history and how to make the dough; the second, next Sunday, will be about turning the dough into Christmas coffee cakes.

The Christmas pi├Ęce de resistance when I was a child, the one that calls back so many memories, was Mom’s Christmas coffee cakes. Mom would bake early in the morning on Christmas Eve, and by the time my brother and I arrived in the kitchen—why was my father never a part of this?—ten or twelve tree-shaped cakes were ready to be decorated with gumdrops, red and green cherries, silver shot, red hots, red and green sugar, and whatever else entered our fancies.

Each finished cake was put on a square of cardboard—festively covered with aluminum foil—and covered with clear wrap. By late morning, we were off to deliver the cakes; I think my father became part of the tradition here, though as soon as my brother was old enough to drive, the delivering was left to the two of us.

We had a regular list of recipients, and at every house where we stopped, we were assured that Christmas morning would not be the same without one of Alice MacBain's coffee cakes. And we left the same warning, the one that every recipient already knew: don't put it in the oven to warm, because the icing will melt and the decorations will run off. Warm it on a cookie sheet on the stove or (should one be so elegant) a warming tray. And always we left with hearty Christmas wishes ringing in our ears.

Newly married and living in Texas, far from my Chicago home, I began to make Christmas coffee cakes and soon had a list of friends who counted on them. When my father died and my mother moved to Texas, she once again took over the baking. When Mother failed and we had to move her out of her home, I carefully carried home the box that held coffee cake “decorates.” I told my brother that I truly felt I had inherited the family mantle.

 Everlasting roll dough

 2 pkg. granular yeast
½ c. warm water - be sure it's warm; try the wrist test you use for baby formula
Pinch of sugar
1 12-oz. can evaporated milk, plus enough water to make 4 cups (nowadays I use “light” milk)
1 scant c. vegetable oil
1 c. sugar
Dissolve yeast in water (add just a pinch of sugar to help the yeast work) and let it rise about five minutes. Mix milk and water, oil, and sugar. Add dissolved yeast--it should have bubbles. Stir in enough flour to make a thin batter, the consistency of cake batter. Let this rise in a warm place until bubbles appear on the surface (probably 1 hour—check it at 30 minutes).
Separately, mix
1 c. flour
1 tsp. salt (or less)
1 heaping tsp. baking powder
1 level tsp. baking soda
2 Tbsp. cardamom (Optional, but this makes it really good—I keep my cardamom in the freezer from year to year.)

Sift seasoned flour into first mixture. Keep adding flour until it is too stiff to stir with a spoon. Knead well. Don't let the dough get stiff with too much flour or your coffee cakes will be heavy.

Also optional: coat 16 oz. candied citron with flour and mix into batter; if your family hates citron, you can substitute raisins. (Being a purist, I insist on citron over the howls of my now-grown children, who don't like raisins either—or cardamom, for that matter!)

This dough isn't just for Christmas. Mom called it “everlasting roll dough.” Just leave out the cardamom and candied fruit, and you can do lots of things with it. Make cloverleaf rolls by putting three small round pieces of dough in each place in a greased muffin pan. Bake until brown (Mom said to cook them at 400o, but I think that’s too hot. They brown but remain doughy in the middle.) My family likes it better when I roll the dough to a thickness of about ¼ inch, use a biscuit cutter or glass to cut out circles—I have an old tin can that Mom used and I suspect maybe Granny Peterman did, too Put a tiny bit of butter in the middle of each, and fold over. Bake on a greased cookie sheet until golden brown. Be sure to use an insulated cookie sheet or put an extra sheet under the one you’re using—these burn on the bottom easily.

To make good, gooey pecan rolls for breakfast, roll the dough out to a flat rectangle. Sprinkle with cinnamon and brown sugar and dab with butter. Roll up into a tube and slice into pieces of about 2 inches. Grease the bottom of an 8x8 pan thoroughly and then cover it with Karo white syrup and pecan halves. Place rounds of dough, cut side down, on the Karo/pecan mixture. Bake these at 350o until brown and center rolls appear cooked. Be sure to turn out of the pan immediately, while still warm. Cold cooked syrup turns to concrete. Rinse the pan immediately with very hot water.

Finally, to make a round coffee cake, repeat instructions about rolling out dough, dabbing with butter, sprinkling with cinnamon and brown sugar, and rolling it up. Twist into a circle and slash with knife periodically along top to give the dough room to expand. Bake at 350ountil done—once again, watch that it doesn’t remain doughy in the thickest part.

 This dough keeps in the refrigerator for a week or more, although it acquires a sourdough taste as it ages--not a bad thing. Just be sure to punch it down occasionall ybefore it takes over your entire refrigerator.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A cooking day

A lazy Sunday at home cooking is one of my favorite kind of days. Today I did just that, and maybe the experience was made better because I hadn't cooked Thanksgiving dinner. I made Norwegian meatballs and mashed potatoes--believe it or not, that took most of the morning. The meatballs are made of ground veal and lamb with a healthy dose of allspice and smaller amounts of ginger and nutmeg--the flavors blend so that you don't taste those spices in the meatballs, but they sure are good. The sauce is made of beef stock, brandy, creme fraiche, cocoa--and gjetost. The latter is a semi-sweet, semi-soft Norwegian cheese. It's a muddy brown in color--in fact, I first thought that was a wrapping around the cheese, after I peeled away the red paper wrapping, but I discovered it was the cheese. Of course I couldn't taste it in the sauce, but the final effect was good. My sauce was too thin, and I think impatience got the better of me--I didn't let it reduce enough. Liquids never reduce as quickly as the recipe tells you they will. I didn't have cocoa powder, though I suspect there's a can hiding somewhere in my pantry. Who doesn't have dark cocoa? I substituted one square of dark chocolate. And you're supposed to soak sourdough bread in milk and yogurt--forgot to buy the yogurt so I used sour cream. Don't think either substitution made a difference. The end result was good, and I like the gravy on the mashed potatoes. I'd give a link to the recipe but I couldn't find it on Google just now. It's from the December 2011 issue of Food & Wine.
I made dessert, an occasion so unusual that my daughter opened the refrigerator and said, "What did you do?" When Christian asked what was in the dessert--he's always suspicious of my ingredients--I told him it was dirt pudding. Jacob said, "This isn't dirt. It's cookies. I was with Juju when she bought Oreos." It is indeed an Oreo crust (3/4 pkg. of Oreos and one stick butter) with a filling of a container of Cool Whip, two pkgs. of French vanilla pudding, an 8 oz. pkg. cream cheese (low fat, of course) and 3/4 cup milk. I used 2% milk for both the meatballs and dessert, but neighbor Jay said that was wrong--need the milk fat. Still, he said the meatballs were good before he knew about the 2% milk, confirming a pet theory of mine about not knowing what you're eating. (Colin, my oldest son, doesn't want anything low-fat, but I often just hide the container from him--what he doesn't know, doesn't hurt him.) The web has thousands of recipes for dirt pudding, no two of them the same. Jacob didn't eat his meatballs but got two helpings of dessert which he said was "really good." I couldn't say, "No you didn't eat your dinner." Child just doesn't like ground meat, and think of all the calcium he got in that dessert. Rationalization.
Jordan, Christian and Jacob came for supper and got my Christmas decoration out of the attic, and Jay and Susan, my neighbors, joined us. Happy evening over early--Jay has to leave the house at 2:00 a.m. tomorrow for a flight.
A nice cooking day. Coming next on Potluck with Judy: Christmas coffee cakes, which will be a two-part post.
Happy Holidays everyone as we skate toward Christmas.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


There's no reason  you can't fix a cheeseball in July or April or September, but in my mind such a treat is always associated with the Christmas holidays. Last night I made my cheeseball for the holidays and froze it.
When I was a kid, my family always shared Christmas Eve with two other families, and one of the women always brought this cheeseball. Mom brought marinated shrimp unlike any I've ever hard, and I long for them to this day--but I developed an allergy to shrimp and am afraid to try it. As the years went by, somehow those families drifted apart, and we began to make the cheeseball ourselves. Now, my kids clamor for it--daughter-in-law Lisa always makes it, and we've shared hints about technic. This is absolutely the best cheeseball I've ever had. But you have to like blue cheese.


½ lb. blue cheese (I really prefer Maytag)
1 pkg. Old English cheese (no longer available—I use an 8 oz. pkg of Velveeta)
l 8 oz. pkg. cream cheese
½ lb. pecans, chopped fine
1 bunch parsley, chopped fine
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 small onion, chopped fine      
½ tsp. horseradish (I usually use a generous tsp.--gives it a certain dash that I like)
Let the cheese soften to room temperature and mix thoroughly. Add Worcestershire, onion, horseradish and half of the parsley and pecans. Mix thoroughly and shape into a ball. Do NOT do this in the food processor, as it will become too runny. Even a mixer makes it too smooth and creamy—wash your hands thoroughly and dig in, so the finished cheese ball has some texture and credibility. Roll the ball in the remaining parsley and pecans. Chill. Serve with crackers. Freezes well.
Start your holidays off with this in the freezer, and you can begin to plan your entertaining. A cheeseball always makes me get serious about holiday cooking.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Aftertaste - a food-related book review

Iwas two-thirds through reading Aftertaste before I realized it was fiction and not a memoir, so clearly and convincingly is it written. Mira Renaldi tells her story of divorce, losing her previous life and finding a new one, in her own voice and does so in a compelling way. She and her husband, Jake, own Grappa, a trendy New York trattatoria and she thinks life is perfect until she find him en flagrante delicto in the restaurant office with the maitresse (a  term I'd never heard for a female matire d'). Enraged, Mira pulls huge handful of hair out of the woman's head and is ordered to anger management therapy. Things go from bad to worse as Mira struggles to raise her infant Chloe, maintain her place in the restaurant, and control her anger--she's particularly bad at the latter and eventually moves home to Pittsburgh to lick her wounds, even though, to her dismay, her long-widowed father appears to have a new woman in his life. There she gradually gets her feet under her, buys a condo, writes a food column for the newspaper, takes Chloe to a gym class, makes friends and begins to build a new world for herself and Chloe. Then comes an amazing opportunity, a chance to move back to New York, take control of Grappa, and save it when it appears to be sinking. Will she or won't she is a big part of this novel, but there is much more to it than that.
As a woman whose husband left her with small children for another woman, I can relate to Mira's situation--but not to her anger. I was angry sure, but Mira's anger is almost irrational and the way she comes to grips with building a new life is an absorbing tale, including the way she comes to accept her father's lover. We all have to move on from abandonment and betrayal, but Mira really has a hard time with it.
Besides chronicling Mira's emotional ups and downs and eventual growth, Aftertaste gives you a clear picture, unvarnished, of the life of a chef. A friend said to me, "I know that's a world you'd love to inhabit, but I can't see it," and I had to reply truthfully that it's a world I would have liked to inhabit when I was thirty but not now. I don't have the energy or the stamina. I appreciate and understand however that cooking, for Mira, is much more than making the best pasta. It's about fulfillment and nourishing others and, yes, garnering praise for your efforts. But it's also about being exhuasted, having no time for yourself, let alone your child. It's a double-edged knife, out of the set of knives precious to each chef.
The subtitle calls this a novel in five parts: I'd call it a three-act play. There's the volatile time in New York, the interlude in Pittsburgh, and the conclusion with the chance at Grappa as the climactic moment. The resolution? You'll have to find that for  yourselves. No spoilers here except to say that echoes of this novel/memoir will stay with me for a long time. An exceptional book.
Yes, there are recipes in the back, including Jake's cassoulet with which he tries to seduce Mira late in the book.
Oh, and the author isn't really the flawed narrator, Mira Renaldi. It's Meredith Miteli.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Does My Mystery Need Recipes?

Please welcome my guest, Norma Huss, who poses an interesting question about the recipes found in the back of many cozy mysteries, offers an alternative, and gives us a new twist on traditional fried green tomatoes. Norma is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Guppies chapter, and Pennwriters. She’s getting into Twitter and Facebook and really likes Goodreads where she can talk about everyone’s books. Her second book, Death of a Hot Chick is now out. So far it is available in trade paperback on Amazon and as an e-book on Barnes & Noble for Nook. She’s working on the Smashwords e-book and Amazon Kindle versions. Her first book, Yesterday’s Body will be out soon in a second edition. Norma’s website is:

Cozy mysteries have samples of their coziness, right? Recipes at the very least. Hints using the protagonist’s specialty. Perhaps quotes from her diary or instruction manual. Do readers demand all that and more?

Readers definitely demand a good read, an engrossing plot, a sympathetic but slightly flawed heroine, a worthwhile villain, a few helpful friends, some interfering bystanders, and several seemingly guilty but otherwise innocent suspects. Those recipes and hints are icing on the cake. I love them. I sprinkled my manuscripts with mention of meals, desserts, and hints. But, I didn’t include a one of them in the back of the book.

 Why not? There are two reasons, or maybe three if I think hard enough. Or four. Number one, those fancy desserts my protagonist’s sister serves make my mouth water, but....I don’t have the recipe. I have an idea, I love to innovate, and I’m sure I can create, for instance, date-filled cookies. In fact, I have made date-filled cookies that taste delicious. However, the recipe takes half a day and belongs to someone else. But, since I love to innovate. I’ll try a few ideas to come up with the same great taste but make it easier. Because, although my character might have the time, my readers may not.

 Therefore, reason number two. I have to experiment, create something new. I think I know how to do it, but I’ll have to try a few batches to be sure it comes out right.  I’m thinking date cookie-bars. But, my book was ready to go...couldn’t wait for me to experiment with that recipe and a few others.

Reason number three. Added value to my website. Keep my readers involved. After I create that recipe, I’ll include it on the recipe page on my website. I’ve done it with my first book. In that mystery, the protagonist does the cooking and tosses together meals from whatever she finds in the cupboard. One I created, with a lot of trial and error, that my husband usually appreciated was garlic chicken with peanut sauce, noodles and vegetables. It’s on my website together with a short excerpt from the book where the meal/recipe is mentioned.

And, there is a reason number four. I take pictures and add them to the website. A real show-and-tell advantage. Works for me!

 What do you think? Are those adequate reasons for a terrible procrastinator to skip the recipes and hints in the final pages of her book?

 Note: Reason number three was inspired by romance writer Susan Meier. She not only does recipes, she creates short stories based on characters in her novels, and gives lessons for the writers among her readers. (Her website is her name dot com.)

Here’s a recipe I introduced on my website.

Fried Green Tomatoes

What does one do with a tomato plant when frost threatens and there are so many little green tomatoes left on the withering vine? I didn't want them to go to waste, so I picked two green tomatoes and one red one, chopped them up with other veggies, and called it salsa. I served it on top of broiled fish. The ripe tomatoes were tasty, the green ones not so much so. Not a success – possibly since I'm not a big fan of peppers, especially HOT peppers.

Once more I visited my sad tomato plant with all those unripe tomatoes. I'd heard of fried green tomatoes. Everybody has. A friend said, "You're supposed to use cornmeal, but I use flour." So, of course, I harvested my entire crop of a dozen green tomatoes and used neither cornmeal nor flour.

2 Servings

Wash and slice a dozen green tomatoes. (They were small.)

Dip the slices into a mixture of one egg whipped with one tablespoon of water and a dash of salt.

Cover all surfaces of the eggy tomatoes with dry bread crumbs.

Fry the tomatoes in hot oil, turning to brown both sides.

To test the oil, sprinkle water into the pan. (I use a mixture of olive oil and canola or corn oil.) It will sizzle when ready.

Remove tomatoes with a slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate to drain excess oil.

Serve with ketchup.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Kake Kreations

Thinking back to my first baking experience, it must have been the summer of 1971 when my best friend came over with one goal: strawberry cupcakes. Moist, pink cake puffed up in paper cups, and we waited anxiously to frost them with soft, pink strawberry-flavored frosting. For years afterward I continued to bake: chocolate chip cookies, cakes, various pastries, pies and elaborately decorated sugar cookies. But cupcakes remained tucked in a special place in my heart. Those tiny individual cakes are magical; a private treat portioned for one, not enough to share—just large enough to encourage a whimsy of delicious selfishness.

 Years passed and I hung up my apron along with my desire to open a bakery. Recently, a friend and co-worker—an avid baker and fellow cupcake enthusiast—told me about a delightful store just down the street from our office called Kake Kreations.

 “Go,” she told me.

 “But I don’t bake anymore,” I said, reflecting back to my youthful afternoons when I’d arrive home from school and whip out a batch of gooey Tollhouse cookies.

 “Go,” she commanded. So I went. If there ever was a heaven for bakers and lovers of all things sweet it’s located on Sherman Way in Canoga Park, California.

 Kake Kreations is more than a bakery supply store. Sure, they have a plethora of cookie cutters, a wide variety of cupcake cups and more sprinkles than you can shake a can of frosting at but they have so much more. If you’re baking a wedding cake they have everything from custom cake mixes in canisters, chilled frostings, and cake toppers as well as pedestal cake stands, cupcake stands, every size, shape and type of bakery box you can imagine, birthday candles and fabulous novelty toppers including sparkler candles and tiny beer can shaped birthday candles—obviously for an adult party. Kake Kreations also stocks candy supplies including more types of molds than I have ever seen gathered together in one place. If you need an edible image you can order it at their store. If the special creation you’re making requires a lot of pre-made sugar mini-flowers to decorate the edge of a wedding cake have no fear as they have plenty.

 Let’s face it; nothing makes a house smell better than the aroma of baking: cakes, cookies, bread, and muffins. That’s why realtors pop a quick batch of cookies in the oven just before an open house. They want it to smell like an open home. Kake Kreations not only supplies the necessary items, they also encourage the aspiration for one to be a creative baker. A designer of delectable delights if you will. The photo of the cupcakes were made by my friend and inside each delicious pumpkin flavored mini cake was a candy: some contained a Rollo, some a mini Three Musketeers, others a soft, caramel. All softened just enough by the baking process to still be recognizable in a gooey sort of way.

So, if you’re in the area stop by Kake Kreations. If you’re too far away you can visit and shop via their website at:

Loni Emmert has spent the past twenty-six years working in the music industry and writing press releases and magazine articles before returning to her passion:  fiction writing. Among her work is the futuristic Isadora DayStar (available on Smashwords & Kindle), cozies Button Hollow Chronicles #1: The Leaf Peeper Murders and Lights! Camera! Murder! She is currently working on her first thriller. Website:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Pomododri al Riso (Tomatoes Baked with Rice)

Please welcome my guest, Patricia Winton. Patricia writes about two of Italy's great works of art: food and crime. Her story "Feeding Frenzy" features protagonist Caroline Woodlock, an American journalist covering the culinary scene in Italy, and Nino Nardo, professor of Italian culinary history and traditions at Rome's 750-year-old university. It appears in Fish Tales, The Guppy Anthology. Patricia has lived in Italy for twelve years, the past nine in Rome. She's a former newspaper food columnist and cooking teacher. She blogs every Wednesday at

When I first came to live in Rome, a woman in my English class had burned her hand taking the dish from the oven the previous night when she was preparing it for a function at her child’s school. I didn’t know the dish, and she wrote it out for me. It a perfect pot luck dish because it’s easy to prepare, travels well, and is best at room temperature.
The recipe given to me was very imprecise, as many Italian recipes are, and I’ve tried to standardize it. The original recipe called for a “fist full of rice” for each tomato.

Serves 6-8

12 round, firm medium sized tomatoes
½ cups long grained rice
1 small onion, grated
3 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil for the basic preparation, plus more for drizzling
3 large potatoes, peeled and cut into wedges
salt to taste
12 basil leaves

Cut the tops off of each tomato and set aside. Using a small grapefruit spoon or melon scooper, carefully scoop the flesh out of each tomato into a large bowl. Try not to break through the outer skin.
Set the tomatoes and lids aside, upside down, on paper towels to drain.

Add raw rice to the tomato flesh and juice. Add the 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and chopped onion. Stir to mix well and let sit for about an hour or so to let the rice absorb some of the liquid.

Sprinkle a bit of salt into each tomato, and place one basil leaf at the bottom of each one. Spoon the rice mixture into each tomato and replace the stemmed cap on each one.  
Oil a baking dish just large enough to hold the tomatoes without falling over. Fit the tomatoes in the dish. Put the potato wedges here and there around the tomatoes to help keep them upright.

Drizzle with more oil and sprinkle with salt.

Bake in a preheated 350F oven for about 40 minutes. Check the tomatoes from time to time to make sure they do not overcook. If desired, baste the tomatoes with the liquid that collects in the bottom of the pan.

When done, allow the tomatoes to cool to room temperature before serving. The dish can be made one day ahead and refrigerated. Allow to come to room temperature before serving.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Planning for guests

I may write by the seat of my pants, but when it comes to daily life, I'm a planner. I make list after list, and I've passed this on to Jordan. If we're giving big parties, we both put dishes out days in advance with little notes telling what goes in each dish, which led Christian to say to Jordan, "You and your mother have a screw loose." So this time of year I begin thinking about the holidays, lists for Thanksgiving, Christmas and some Christmas entertaining. But before I really worry about all that, I have guests coming.
This weeked Megan and her family are arriving from Austin, which will attract Jordan and her family and Jamie and his three girls, Mel included. Nope, I'm not planning. The Austin and Frisco contingents are not planners, and I can't count on when they'll be here or what they'll want. I probably have enough for breakfast for kids, and that's all I'm going to worry about. I'll go with the flow--hard for me, but I'm getting better at it.
But the next weekend my best friend from high school is coming to visit--whooppee! I'm excited. Neither she nor I drive well on the highway, so we had wondered how we'd get together, but she has a friend with friends near Fort Worth, and so they're both coming. I've met the friend through emails, and we've been bantering happily back and forth. But in one email, Barbara's friend, Pam, let drop that she hates mayonnaise and any of that other "white stuff"--sour cream, cream cheese, etc. She's just like my Megan.
Well, there went my menu planning. I was going to fix a potato chip/chicken casserole one night with butter and mayonaise; the next night, chicken bundles in crescent rolls--the filling chicken and cream cheese. (Both of those are courtesy Mystery Lovers Kitchen, from Elizabeth Spann Craig whose new book is Progressive Dinner Deadly--I've used Elizabeth's recipes often and love them).Regroup and replan, and when I did it amazed me how many of my recipes rely on one or another form of "the white stuff," though since I have good friends who are gluten and dairy free, I should be better at this. But Doris casserole, a family favorite? Noodle portion has a sauce of sour cream and cream cheese. That new ziti recipe? The sauce is made creamy with cream cheese, sort of a Bolognese effect. And so it went with every recipe I picked up.
I'm not going to divulge the weekend menu, since I know my prospective guests read my blog--I'll share it after the fact. But here's a non-creamy recipe I'm going to fix tomorrow for Linda who regularly dines with me on class night. Linda loves pasta and tuna:

Cover skillet with a light coat of olive oil, heat and saute one box cherry tomatoes and one Tbsp of capers with liquid. When tomatoes begin to blister, add one can of drained white beans (cannellini). Add a 7.5 oz. can of drained albacore tuna,some parsley, and anchovies. Toss with pasta of your choice. You may have to add a little olive oil.

Quick and easy one-dish meal with crunchy bread.