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Piccalilli

Every year my Nana would make delicious treats using produce from my grandfather’s garden, including wonderful relishes and thinly sliced bread & butter pickles. Towards the end of the summer she’d make piccalilli, a sweet and tangy relish, with all of the green tomatoes left on the vine when the weather got cool.

This past weekend I decided to try my hand at putting this year’s crop to good use. My family couldn’t find Nana’s recipe, so I did some research and came up with a blended version of some I found online.

Through process of elimination, I weeded out ideas such as adding cauliflower and cabbage (didn’t seem quite right) but remembered flecks of red (bell pepper) and the distinct sweet-tart taste. I decided that a process taking multiple days wasn’t for me, and neither was one that required the somewhat frightening canning process. Simple, straightforward, and traditional – that was what I was looking for.

I think what I ended up pulling together came out great; I knew once I started the final cooking process it just smelled right (this realization was followed by a small happy dance complete with “it smells right!” cheering). The spices were on-point (surprising since most of the recipes called for whole allspice, which I don’t think most people have just lying around) and I felt like I was on to something. Plus, it only took half of a lazy Sunday to make, which seemed quick compared to the two day process some recipes called for!

I wrapped the spices in a coffee filter (you could use a tea ball) and let them infuse into the veggie mixture as it cooked. Overall, the process was easy; just chop veggies, soak, cook, and then put in canning jars! I knew it would all get eaten quickly, so I didn’t bother with the preserving process.

I’m very pleased with the results, and feel like I was able to recreate a recipe that is very close to my heart. Now I can carry on my Nana’s tradition through many more fall seasons!!

Piccalilli

makes about 4-5 cups of relish

4 cups chopped green tomatoes (this was about 8 small tomatoes for me)
1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
1 yellow onion
1 cup sugar
1 2/3 cups apple cider vinegar
2 tsp whole peppercorns
6 whole cloves
1 tsp whole mustard seed
1/2 cinnamon stick
1/2 cup salt

1. Chop all vegetables. Slice the tomatoes and run through a food processor, pulsing to achieve a small chop (like salsa). Don’t worry about the seeds; they are so small that you don’t even notice them once the relish is done. Do the same with the red and green pepper, except take out the seeds.

2. Put veggies into a large non-reactive bowl, like plastic or glass. Dissolve 1/2 cup salt in 4 cups water, heating over low until clear. Pour salt water mixture over the veggies.

3. Stir and allow to sit for 4 hours.

4. After 4 hours, strain veggies through a fine sieve. Rinse VERY well or your relish will be too salty. Resist the urge to eat the veggies as salsa; the mixture smells delicious and I was tempted to take a tortilla chip and dive in!

5. Bundle spices in a coffee filter and tie closed, or put in a tea ball. Place spices, veggies, sugar, and vinegar in a non-reactive pan. I used my large nonstick wok-type pan since I didn’t know how my sauce pans might react.

6. Stir well and bring mixture to a boil. Boil gently, stirring often, for 30 minutes.

7. While the mixture is still hot, spoon into warm, sanitized canning jars, leaving an inch of air at the top. Seal jars, turning the lids until just tight. If you’re lucky, you may hear the telltale “pop” a few hours later, indicating that your piccalilli has been sealed and will last into the winter months (if it doesn’t get eaten before then). Allow jars to cool on the counter for a while and then put in the refrigerator to store.

Enjoy as you would any other relish. We love it as a spread on subs, or as a topping on hot dogs or kielbasa. Yum!

Best Ever Chocolate Chip Cookies

Butter. Salt. Chocolate. Thin, crispy edges. Gooey, melty center.

These truly are the BEST. COOKIES. EVER. Seriously.

Though they take a little more time than “normal” chocolate chip cookies (a minimum overnight rest in the refrigerator), and have some slight quirks that depart from standard recipes (sprinkle of sea salt), these truly are the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever made. The overnight rest gives the butter and flour time to work together into the perfect texture, makes the sugars caramelize better as the cookies bake, and creates a deeper, richer flavor.

For chocolate, you could use the fancy fèves that the NY Times recommends, but I just use what I have on hand. Stick with dark and you’ll be all set.

These cookies provide the comfort level of your standard, run-of-the-mill Toll House version, but kick up the taste with a pinch of sea salt to finish. For salty-sweet lovers, these are the perfect dessert. And for those who are unsure, live a little. You’ll be glad you did (trust me on this – salted caramels have been known to convert many into believers).

 

Best Ever Chocolate Chip Cookies

Recipe from the NY Times

 

2 cups minus 2 tablespoons cake flour

1 2/3 cups bread flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter

1 1/4 cups light brown sugar

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract

1 1/2 bags dark chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (original recipe calls for 1 1/4 pounds. I just eyeball it)

Sea salt.

 

1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

2. Cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes (be patient – this is very important! Seriously – time it for 5 minutes). Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the vanilla. Add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Do not over-mix! Fold in chocolate bits to incorporate. Place dough in an airtight container and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours.

3. 24 HOURS LATER – Time to bake! Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drop small balls of dough onto pan – I use a small ice cream scoop to keep mine even, but they should be about the size of small golf balls.

4. Bake for about 10 minutes, but watch closely! They get very dark, very fast right at the end. Your cookies may need to bake for a shorter or longer period of time – watch them until they are light golden on the edges and puffy in the center.

5. Let cool on the cookie sheet for about 7 to 10 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack.

6. Consume immediately for best results. Those edges won’t stay crispy for long!

Makes about 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.

Bridal Shower Menu

When asked to be my cousin’s maid of honor, one of the first things on my mind was throwing the perfect bridal shower. I knew I’d have to find the right blend of classic and modern, comfortable and elegant, and of course – plan the perfect menu to please all of the guests. In a wonderful stroke of luck, the “classic” element took care of itself, after locating the perfect historical venue in the small New England town we both grew up in. With the addition of some clean and modern decorations, and some personal touches, the location and ambiance were taken care of.

Then came the food.

Clearly, I wasn’t about to let control of the event be handed over to someone else, so I took on all of the menu planning, food prep, and presentation myself. I wanted everything to be perfect.

It was an afternoon shower, so I wanted to serve “tea-type” food, with a seasonal twist. It was important to me to make the menu personal and add an element of comfort, rather than sticking with a very traditional high-tea menu.

The savory dishes included the following:

  • Harvest Chicken Salad sandwiches with toasted pecans and dried cranberries, served on mini croissant rolls

    Chicken salad is always featured at our family gatherings, so it was a must-have for the shower. I used my grandmother’s usual recipe, but dressed it up with toasted pecans, dried cranberries and celery for crunch. The mini croissant rolls ended up being the perfect size, and I thought they were a little more elegant than traditional rolls.

  • English Cucumber Sandwiches with herbed cheese spread

    Again, a must-have for afternoon tea. These were a favorite, and I thought they came out really well. The two key steps for success with this simple sandwich: buy the right bread (I got this “very thin” white bread after trying three different ones) and slicing the cucumbers thin enough. I also mixed Boursin cheese with plain cream cheese and my own blend of spices to get the spread just right.

  • Cranberry Apple chutney with golden raisins, served with triple creme brie on water crackers

    I made my own chutney with fresh apples, cranberries and golden raisins, cooked down with a little brown sugar, a splash of orange juice and some cayenne pepper for heat. With the triple creme brie, it was the perfect combination of sweet and tart, creamy and crunchy.

  • Roasted butternut squash and pears with honey goat cheese, served in phyllo dough cups

    These simple treats we so pretty and colorful, and a perfect nod to the season. I roasted off small cubes of butternut squash and pears, and filled toasted phyllo dough cups with the mixture, finally topping them with honey goat cheese.

On to the sweet stuff (clearly the favorite):

  • Spiced pumpkin bread with cream cheese and candied walnuts

    Another nod to the season – I made my family’s favorite pumpkin bread, filled with lots of cinnamon and ginger, and baked it in a jelly roll pan to get the right thickness. After cutting small rounds out of the cooked bread, I piped cream cheese in a lovely swirl, and topped each off with a hand-caramelized walnut half made with brown sugar and cinnamon.

  • Carrot cake with cream cheese icing

  • Raspberry shortbread bars

    This was actually one of my favorites, and was a new recipe which I’m surprised to say I found on the Land o’Lakes website of all places. It was buttery (shocking) and sweet, but not too crumbly. And so easy!

  • Chewy butter toffee cookies

  • Snickerdoodles

I thought that the presentation was almost as important as the food, so I used modern white platters with variable heights. Multiple sizes of cake stands were very helpful for this, and also made it possible to fit all of the food in the allotted space on the rather small table. I used mixed patterns of family china for guest dishes to again add an element of comfort and elegance, with a but of whimsy.

For drinks, I set up a coffee and tea bar, with an assortment of choices, and also provided a signature bellini made with pear and cranberry.

Printed cards with a visual motif pulled in from the stationery and signage for the event helped identify the dishes, and fluffy tissue paper flowers added a modern touch to the space.

Overall, it was a lot of work to pull off the event, particularly the food, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way. It turned out beautiful, and everyone seemed right at home the entire time. A very happy celebration for the bride!

Striped Shortbread

With Valentine’s day just around the corner, I’ve been trying to decide what to bake. Last year I went all out with the pink Italian rainbow cookies (yum!) so I knew I had to do something equally exciting. While these little shortbread cookies are far less complicated, I think they have just as much panache.  I used a couple different decorating styles – my favorite being the gradient of red sugar crystals seen above. I also made a version using white non-perils on the edges, which I thought looked a little like a polka dot border. So fun!

 

For the dough, I used my favorite lemon shortbread recipe, which I doubled and dyed half a pretty pink color. I thought the lemon was a nice touch, and I love the yellow of the little bits of zest peeking through the stripes.

To make the stripes, I took the pink dough and white dough and split both in half to make a total of 4 rounds. After resting them in the refrigerator for 2 hours, I rolled each out to about a quarter of an inch thick. I placed the four layers on top of one another, alternating the pink with the white. After they were all together, I gave a final roll to ensure they’d stick, then cut the whole sheet in half again. I then stacked those two pieces of dough together to make a total of eight stripes. One more roll for good measure, and it all went back in the refrigerator for a little longer.

I then sliced thin strips off of the larger piece, which got trimmed into their final shape. Before baking, I decorated the cookies with sprinkles which I think really added to how festive they look.

 

I think this technique would be really fun for many holidays and occasions, and most shortbread recipes should work. The key is to allow enough time to let the dough chill and rest between steps to preserve the stripes – they are my favorite part of the cookie! I’ve seen similar designs using chocolate and vanilla dough, but I think this color variation is graphic and modern – it would be perfect for a party or shower!

Favorite Lemon Shortbread

adapted from various sources

12 tbs unsalted butter

3/4 cup sugar

1 egg

2 1/4 cups flour

1/2 tsp vanilla

1/4 tsp salt

2 tsp baking powder

zest of three lemons

 

Beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add egg and beat to combine. Stir in vanilla and dry ingredients. Beat in lemon zest at the end, making sure that it is well distributed, but do not over mix the dough. Divide the dough in half and pat into two disks. Wrap with plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour. Roll and cut, or shape into a log and slice. Bake at 350 until just barely golden at the edges.

Tip: This dough freezes well. I suggest rolling it into a log shape and freezing until you’d like to use it – then it is very easy to just slice and bake. Also, the texture of the cookie will vary greatly depending on the thickness you cut/roll the dough. You can achieve a very crispy cookie by slicing a little thinner, or slightly soft and a little chewy by slicing a little thicker – completely up to you!

 

Lemon Poppy Seed Cake

I love lemon poppy seed – muffins, bundt cakes, pound cake…any form works for me. I know it may be old-fashioned or uncool, but it is just so zesty and sweet! And I love hit of crunchy nuttiness from the poppy seeds. I thought it would be the perfect treat on a snowy weekend, and looked so cute in mini cakelet form (thanks to this oh-so-fun Christmas gift).

I combined a couple of recipes based on what I had around the house, but I think the sour cream is the key to keeping these little cakes moist. They do stick, so make sure you grease the pan well, and let the cakes cool for about 5 minutes before tipping them out. No more, no longer – to little and they’ll crumble on impact, too much and they’ll cling for dear life.

Lemon Poppy Seed Cake

2 cups flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1 cup butter, softened

2 cups sugar

3 eggs

2 tbs. lemon zest (from two large lemons)

1/2 tsp. vanilla

1 cup sour cream

3 tbs poppy seeds

Combine sugar and butter in mixer, cream until pale and fluffy. Add in eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Wisk together dry ingredients, add to sugar mixture in thirds, alternating with the sour cream. Add in poppy seeds and beat until just combined.

Spoon mixture into well-greased pan (I think a muffin pan would work equally well here). Beware – this dough rises to almost double in size – resulting in the little skirt at the bottom of the cake above. Nothing wrong with it (some say it’s the tastiest part) but I thought I’d issue a warning. Bake at 325 degrees for about 25-30 minutes or until golden brown and springy to the touch.