Once fall arrives, I live in anticipation of the holiday season - that fairy tale world of twinkling lights, cozy family time, gift-giving, and gatherings over a good meal.  Sweets and treats are surely part of that image and regardless of how close reality is to fantasy when it comes to the holidays, I find myself impatient, with fingers tapping, wondering when I can start baking Christmas cookies already!  
Cookies are coming...but aside from cookies (and lots of chocolates - this is when I stock up on some extra special chocolates), I also think of warm indulgent drinks to sip and savor.  I tried Barcelona hot chocolate a couple of winters ago and it became our Christmas morning drink.  I recently auditioned another contender with this Bicerin (pronounced: bee-chair-EEN), a coffee and chocolate drink native to Turin (Torino), Italy.

Torino is a part of the Piedmont region in Northern Italy.  When I think Piedmont, I think hazelnuts and given my love of all things chocolate-and-hazelnuts, I always pay attention to anything associated with Piedmont.  Well, this drink, Bicerin, which translates into "small glass" in Piedmontese (for how the drink was originally served), has been around since the 18th century when it was served at the cafe, Al Bicerin.  But forget the small glass; after trying it, I want as big a glass as I can get my hands on!  
This delicious drink consists of three parts: a base layer of rich hot chocolate, followed by strong coffee or espresso, topped with a final layer of lightly whipped cream.  It's rich and absolutely delicious for any fan of the coffee and chocolate combination.  

I have been wanting to try David Lebovitz's recipe for Bicerin for a long time and I am very happy I finally have.  Even dialing down the amount of chocolate I used for the base layer and using my regular drip coffee, the drink turned out sensational.  It was a great accompaniment to breakfast on a cold morning last weekend.
The nice thing about making things at home is you can customize it to your liking.  Maybe you prefer your drink with a little less hot chocolate and a bit more coffee, or the reverse.  Use espresso instead of strong coffee if you have it.  And instead of whipped cream, you could top it with milk foam for a lighter version.  I prefer mine with plenty of rich chocolate flavor and the whipped cream was a wonderful treat.  It's great to see the layers in the drink (if you look closely) but I like giving it a stir before taking a good sip and enjoying that wonderfully robust chocolate and coffee combination.  It will warm and cheer you right up!

Maryland fudge cake

I love when I see something tasty yet simple that has me hopping into the kitchen for a little baking therapy.  A couple of days ago, I saw this recipe for a Maryland fudge cake at Food52 that immediately tempted me.  I was lured by the simple, uncomplicated process and, frankly, the plain fact that I'd end up with a fudge cake at the end of it all.  I mean, how bad can that be?  The answer is, not bad at all.
I made a small 6-inch version of the cake - more like a torte, which I always think of as relatively thin, single-layer cakes, usually made with nuts.  This cake/torte is a lot like a brownie.  It puffs as it bakes and you end up with a crackly top and a crust, especially along the edges, which are almost hard in a wonderfully dense and chewy kind of way.  At its core, it is meltingly moist and sweet.  Offsetting the sweetness, studs of toasted walnuts give the cake a ton of texture and flavor.  
This cake is easy to make, a great little simple after-dinner treat to slice up and share.  I opted out of the thin layer of chocolate frosting you can make and top this cake with.  I think it's sweet and moist enough already without it.  The cake tastes great plain, also good with a little whipped cream on the side.  Ultimately though, I recommend it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. 
It's so interesting to learn about regional cooking, as in the case of this Maryland fudge cake, a recipe found in a publication from the 1960's.  Also interestingly enough, I had recently seen a show featuring Smith Island Cake (Smith Island being off the mainland coast of Maryland; the cake is considered the "official" dessert of the state of Maryland).  I was tempted by it but Smith Island Cake is a far more complicated affair - featuring as many as 15 thin layers of cake alternating with thin layers of fudge!  You can probably imagine why I choose to dive into this far simpler fudge cake for the time being.  

Easy ricotta pudding with chocolate and pistachios

After making pancakes with it, I experimented with my leftover ricotta and found my way to this easy dessert.  Think Sicily, and think cannoli filling because this pudding is simply sweetened, drained, ricotta mixed with grated chocolate and topped with pistachios.
Could it be much easier than this no cook/no bake dessert?  When I saw this recipe from Nick Stellino for ricotta pudding, I was intrigued and knew what I wanted to do with my remaining ricotta.  
Before putting the pudding together, place the ricotta in a fine mesh sieve for about an hour to drain and remove the excess liquid.  Then, all you have to do it stir the ricotta with sugar to sweeten it, then blend in some finely grated chocolate.  Spoon it right into serving glasses and top with some chopped pistachios.  It's quick and easy, and makes for an elegant yet simple dessert.  It's also a great make-ahead.
Serve as is, or top it with a little whipped cream and sprinkle a bit more of the grated chocolate and chopped pistachios on top.  A maraschino cherry on top of the whipped cream is a fun alternative, too.
This was an easy and fun dessert to make.  The pudding might be a bit on the dense side but that made it satisfying.  We liked the mild sweet creaminess of the ricotta and of course, stirring the chocolate into it almost turned it into chocolate ricotta.  The topping of pistachios added the crunch that I think I enjoyed most. 

Ricotta pancakes with blueberry compote

I spend a lot of time thinking about weekend breakfast...they make me happy and I think it's natural to want to think about things that bring you joy.  I love that first meal of the day, sitting down to something savory or something sweet and unwinding over a few cups of coffee.  We're always digging into a constant array of pancakes, waffles, bacon and eggs, or something similar.  I love making all our family favorites (it's a good thing there are quite a few) and I also love it when I get to try a little something new.
This was my first time making ricotta pancakes. I had them once in a restaurant and I remember the lightness to them.  I hadn't really thought about it but after making sour cream pancakes recently, I thought "how about ricotta?".  Inspired by that whim, I bought some whole milk ricotta and we enjoyed a batch of ricotta pancakes last weekend.  
Ricotta pancakes are light and fluffy, yet rich and hearty.  They're a little extra moist and a bit creamy.  In other words, they make a lovely weekend breakfast.

They taste great with the usual drizzle of maple syrup but I topped them with a blueberry compote, which is very easy to make using straight-from-the-freezer frozen blueberries.  I was inspired by the signature pancakes I see on my instagram feed from Clinton Street Baking Co., a restaurant in NYC.  I've yet to eat there (warnings about the long wait deters this homebody) but the photos of their pancakes topped with blueberry compote, as well as their other comfort foods, totally call out to me!
Pancakes are a great canvas - fine eaten plain but better with maple syrup, spread with jam or Nutella, or topped with fruit or a berry compote like this.  I recommend them all on weekend mornings!  And I counted this as another happy breakfast I was grateful to share with my family.  

The food isn't as important as the company and conversations that go with it at the breakfast table but it sure helps to have something yummy to gather over.  To that end, I'm always open to new inspirations! 

One-bowl oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (made with oil)

In general, I'm a fan of baking with oil and those recipes always appeal to me.  I suppose I feel somewhat "virtuous" using oil instead of butter, plus there's the convenience factor of not having to bring butter to room temperature, as you often need to do before the mixing and baking can begin.
Honestly, it doesn't take all that much to tempt me to bake a batch of cookies!  And this recipe from Half Baked Harvest was particularly tempting since it's just so simple - one bowl to mix everyone up, as you see below. And when a recipe is touted as a mom's specialty and one of the best around, I know I have to try it. 
The secret's in the oil.  The lineup of ingredients include the typical roster you'd expect in an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie but instead of butter, softened and creamed with sugar, you stir in canola oil.  The result is a somewhat crumbly, moist dough.  

I'd say the only tricky part of the recipe is molding the dough balls.  It doesn't want to stick together so you can't simply scoop the dough.  Instead, take spoonfuls of it and squeeze it together in your palm to pack it into a ball.  Be mindful to take some of the chocolate chips and incorporate it into the dough and on top to make sure you evenly distribute them among the cookies.
The little bit of finagling with the cookie dough balls was certainly a worthwhile effort.  In about 12 minutes, I had lovely little mounds of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies cooling on the counter.  The cookies have a great texture - thick, chewy, and moist.  They are chock full of chocolate from a generous amount of chocolate chips.   
I liked these cookies best a bit warm...the chocolate flavor is more intense and the caramel notes in the cookie seem to stand out more.  Enjoy them fresh from the oven if possible but you can always warm them for 10 seconds or so in the microwave.  Cooled, the cookies are still great - with a firm yet moist and chewy texture.  

My son is a big fan of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and these have his stamp of approval - whether warm or cooled!  That always makes a mom feel like she's accomplished a mission.  

Dinner lately ...

My, how time flies!  I hope life has been good lately.  I'm nestling into fall and in this sometimes crazy world that we live in, I find comfort and a little insulation in a good book and, of course, in the kitchen - by cooking meals to enjoy with my family.  

Recently, I've been trying some new things on the savory side.  I'm still baking but leaning on the treasure trove of great recipes I've already discovered from the past 6 years of blogging.  Since I wanted to pop in here and say "hello", I thought I'd indulge in a little dinner "show-and-tell" today. No specific recipes per se (in most cases, I took ideas from several recipes at a time) but just a little walk through of dinner lately around here...please pardon the hodgepodge of different-quality photos; many of them are my casual Instagram snaps, taken when lighting is not at its best around dinnertime.  

First up, there was my stuffed peppers project.
When we went to Charleston, we had a lovely dinner at Magnolia's where I had the most amazing vegetarian dish.  I wasn't exactly sure what would arrive but it turned out to be stuffed peppers, filled with the chewiest rice and topped with pepperjack cheese and a sweet tomato chutney.
It inspired me to make my own at home.  While the version I came up with was quite different from the amazing restaurant dish, it had similarities and I was very happy with dinner that night!  I filled my peppers with jasmine rice (cooked in chicken stock and some saffron), onions and corn sautéed with a touch of curry powder, garlic, and herbs, diced tomatoes, and some ground turkey.  The pepperjack cheese adds just the right touch of richness, making them all the more satisfying.

One-skillet beef mac & cheese

This easy, one-pan, beef mac & cheese immediately became a favorite at my house after I tried the recipe a few months back.  It is one of my son's favorite dishes and he can devour it in minutes (and could likely eat the entire pan himself if you let him). So after making it so many times, I thought I'd post it here on the blog for quick reference; I grabbed my camera and snapped a few shots before the sunset as I plated it for dinner last week.
And with summer essentially in the rear view mirror (how did that happen!) and the change to cooler temps making us crave heartier meals, macaroni and cheese comes to the rescue.  This one-skillet dish comes together in less than 30 minutes so it's easy enough for busy weeknights.  

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of Christina Lane's blog, Dessert for Two.  My son loves a bunch of her recipes, which I make over and over again. This skillet mac & cheese recipe is one and it comes from her savory cookbook, Comfort and Joy: Cooking for Two. Honestly, my son could eat the entire skillet so as time went on, I've snuck in a bit more meat and pasta (as much as I can without overflowing my 10-inch skillet) to amp up the portion.  If you're feeding more than two people as a main for dinner, I suggest some garlic bread and/or a big platter of roasted vegetables to go alongside.  
This macaroni and cheese gets its creaminess and thickness from a combination of milk, water, cornstarch, and, of course, cheese - cheddar cheese, to be exact.  The cheddar gives it such a great familiar flavor but I've also made this with some pepper jack cheese thrown in, and since it melts so well, it gives the mac & cheese a great texture.  In other words, don't be afraid to personalize it.  

I think the same goes on the flavor front when it comes to the spices.  A mix of spices including chili powder and smoked paprika give this mac & cheese a nice smokey flavor but I've experimented with different proportions and I sometimes throw in other spices from my spice box. When I first made this recipe, the flavors were a bit too strong for my son so I tampered down the spice levels.  But now...he's grown used to it and I'm pretty heavy handed with the spice.
Another way to mix and bulk this up - add some vegetables into your mac & cheese.  I often toss in some broccoli and when all else fails, there's always frozen peas on hand. It's fair to say that almost everything tastes good in a creamy cheese sauce!


A couple of weeks ago, I made tiramisu for a very special occasion.  Not only did I recently celebrate a big birthday, my brother - who's ten years old than I am - marked a milestone birthday of his own!
About a week before my brother's big birthday, my sister in law planned a family gathering to celebrate not only his birthday but ones for two of my nephews (late August and early early September is a busy time!).  There was champagne and nibbles, ice cream cake for the kids, and we planned to go out to dinner.  I wanted to contribute a little something to the at-home festivities and I knew it would be tiramisu.

My brother orders tiramisu for dessert almost every time we go out.  It might well be that we tend to go to an Italian restaurant when my siblings and I go out to dinner together but all the same, tiramisu is just a favorite dessert of his (and my husband, too; it seems to be a "guy" thing). Before this, I'd made individual tiramisu but I'd never done the traditional classic version in a larger serving pan.
I was a little nervous about this.  Making something you haven't really made before for a special occasion - even when it's just family who wouldn't mind if things aren't exactly stellar - is a bit daunting.  This is the time when you do some homework, cross your fingers, and get to work.

Making this tiramisu wasn't without some minor hitches but all was well.  My tiramisu, with amaretto as the liqueur of choice, turned out just fine.  I'm told it was quite tasty, actually.  I have to say I enjoyed what I tasted very much even though I'm no expert.  The important thing is that the birthday boy said it was as good as any restaurant's, and I have to be satisfied with high praise like that!
The tiramisu I turned out is a compilation of a few recipes, leaning heavily on David Lebovitz's recipe I used previously for the individually portioned ones.  It uses egg yolks as well as egg whites (as opposed to heavy cream), which I think makes for a lighter texture and flavor.  We don't personally have issues with using raw eggs but you have to decide on your comfort level in that regard.
It's no wonder so many people love tiramisu.  It's rich and creamy, yet so light.  The coffee flavor, as well as amaretto liqueur in my case, gives it just the right kick.  
Photos of the sliced tiramisu above are actually from the second tiramisu I made.  My husband angled for his own "personal pan" and I was happy to oblige.


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