Chocolate Oatmeal No-Bake Cookies

When you're three and a half days away from Christmas, you've got to choose baking projects that are fast. Really fast. And really delicious.

So, are you ready for Christmas? Are you completely exhausted and have suddenly realized you haven't done anything for your manicurist, mailman, stylist, concierge, or next-door-neighbor? 

Invited to multiple holiday parties? Not sure what to bring?

Guests show up unannounced to spread some cheer and you're caught without anything to serve?

These Chocolate Oatmeal No-Bake Cookies are great for any of the above. 

Chocolate Oatmeal No-Bake Cookies

Ingredients: 

  • 2 cups of sugar
  • 1/2 cup of cocoa
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1/2 cup of milk
  • 1 tsp. of vanilla
  • 3 cups quick-cooking oatmeal
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter

Directions:

Combine sugar, cocoa, butter, and milk in a saucepan. On medium heat, bring to a boil for one full minute. Then remove from heat and stir in peanut butter, vanilla, and oatmeal.

Drop by spoonful onto wax paper. Let cool for 30 minutes.

Stack them up, wrap them with wax paper and some ribbon. Boom! Holiday cheer you can hand out to anyone.

Voila!

Now, go relax for a while. We've got this.

Great-Grandma Heller's Sugar Cookies

My great-grandmother Heller struggled to raise five daughters. A tough woman with German blood, she knew how to scrimp and save with the best of 'em. This year I made her sugar cookies for the family and for a few other people. They're simple cookies with a subtle vanilla flavor that's more like a biscuit than a traditional American sugar cookie. Think a European version of sweetness. Not too sweet at all, just delicious and perfect when dunked into a cup of hot cocoa.

Grandma Heller's Sugar Cookies

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Cream together:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Add 3 beaten eggs to the creamed mixture.

In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients:

  • 2/3 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 + 2/3 cups flour

Combine all ingredients in one bowl. Then drop by spoonfuls onto greased cookie sheets. Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Take out of oven and sprinkle with cinnamon. Then allow to cool completely.

Enjoy!

Moczka - Polish Sweet Dessert Soup

Poland, for those who don't know, is 99% Catholic. What that means is that Christmas is serious business. It's celebrated like nowhere else I've lived. It's all about family and sharing the event of the birth of Christ. For children, it's still about presents but for adults, well...they spend their holiday drinking, eating, and napping.

Christmas in Poland begins on the 24th at the sighting of the first evening star. Families head to church for mass and then return home to eat and open presents. It can turn out to be an all night affair. It was during this all night affair that I first tasted Moczka

The area where I lived was called Silesia. It's in the southwestern part of Poland, near the Czech border. It's known for coal and salt mines and German architecture influences and a dialect called Slask (which no one else in Poland can understand). It is also known for Moczka. Pronounced Moch-ka, this is actually a sweet dessert soup. Yes, soup. It's unbelievably good and good for you. Actually, it can be TOO good for you if you eat too much of it. You'll see why when you read the recipe.

Zofia and I spent a few wintery afternoons together talking about life in Poland during Communism. Her husband, Zieslaw, worked in the train-yard and lost a finger on the job. When her three children were young, Zofia would have all of them stand in line with her so that the family could get more bread at one time. She told me that they used Russian newspapers as toilet paper because the newsprint didn't come off as easily as the Polish newspapers. She was funny, and feisty, and a fierce protector of her family. She gave me this recipe and I made it the first Christmas I returned home from Poland.

Zofia's Moczka Recipe

Ingredients:

- 1lb. loaf of Gingerbread
- 2 and a half 12oz bottles, or 1 liter of caramel beer or ale.
- 14oz pitted prunes,
- 7oz raisins
- 5oz chopped blanched almonds
- 8oz of figs
- 8oz walnuts
- 8oz of dates
- 1 jar of plum compote
- 1 bar of dark chocolate
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 2 Tbsp flour
- Sugar to taste (Vanilla Sugar if available.)

Optional additions: Pinch of ground clove, 5oz of dried cherries, 5oz hazelnuts

How to prepare:
The gingerbread should be dried out a bit. Grate it and add it to a pot with 1 liter of caramel beer or ale. Leave it to sit overnight. Chop plums, figs, and dates finely. Pour boiling water over raisins in Pyrex or mixing bowl and leave to swell, then drain. Grind nuts in a mortar or pulse in food processor. Mix all dried fruit together, put in pot and cover with water and cook until tender, stirring constantly.

Once tender, combine gingerbread mix with cooked fruit mixture in one pot and add a jar of plum compote. (Think plum jam or plum preserves.) Grate the chocolate and add it to the soup. Sweeten with sugar to taste. 

Dissolve butter in a pan and add flour to make a roux. Add to Moczka and mix together.

Can be served warm or cold.

Skillet Skills

They say timing is everything. One week after my sister told me that she's starting a collection of cast iron skillets, I found three really terrible looking pieces at a yard sale. I started wondering about cast iron. Many of my friends swear by it; saying its the best kind of cookware. American settlers and pioneers certainly agreed with them. (Maybe because Calphalon wasn't around yet.) So, what's the big deal?

The skillets and pans I found were made by Lodge Manufacturing Company. Now I know that the pans I saw could have been truly vintage since the company has been around since the 1800's. Mom said probably not. The people that owned them just didn't know how to care for cast iron. So, what do you do after you've made a meal and a mess of your skillet or pan? 

Follow these steps to clean and season your heirloom cookware:

1. Remove all the extra food bits by pouring in a cup of coarse salt into the warm skillet. Fold up a cheesecloth or kitchen towel and use that as a scouring pad. I think a baby diaper would work really well. Then throw out the salt and rinse the while thing with hot water. Dry it immediately with a clean towel. 

2. To season the pan, pot, or skillet rub 1 Tbsp of vegetable oil on the cast iron. This helps to stop any rusting. Optionally, you can then heat the pan a bit to let the oil soak in. Keep it low and for a minute or two. Just long enough to get it warm.

3. Store your pan in a dry environment. 

Voila! That's it!

Recipes and blogs for cast iron enthusiasts:

Now, I'm not a happy cook. Sometimes I just can't wrap my head around what to make for dinner. Dessert, however, is a snap and baking anything is a joy for me. So, Internet, show me what to bake in a cast iron pan. 

How about a whole blog on Cooking in Cast Iron. Surely, they know what to do. What about finger foods? Something fun to eat, like these Griddled Fresh Chickpeas. Now, not only am on on the hunt for vintage cast iron, but also for unique dessert recipes to cook in them. Cast iron, it's not just for cornbread and chicken any more.

Bon Appetit!

Family Pie Contest

Next week my grandmother turns 102. So many people have asked her what her secret is. All I can tell you is that she doesn't smoke, although she did years ago. She takes an Aspirin each day. She eats what she likes, but just not too much of it. She drinks Campari and soda when the occasion calls for it, or perhaps a little bit of Port after dinner. She's always well-dressed and coiffed. She lives alone and still throws fabulous get-togethers in her impeccably appointed apartment.

This year for her birthday she has asked for pie. Only pie. So we're having a family pie contest. My cousin Mark, who isn't a sweets person, is making Shepherd's Pie for our dinner and the rest of us are making dessert pies. My cousin David, who won the Macaroni and Cheese contest last year, is already sending me text message threats of another win this year.  

Here are my top picks for this year's contest. What do you think?

No.1 - Momofuku Milk Bar's Crack Pie. This is one of my all time favorite pies. The salty sweet goodness is cold and dense and difficult to put down. In fact, just when you think you can't eat another bite, you want more. It's much like my candy but in pie form. The recipe takes fifteen hours. That should throw the family off a little bit. Also, it's an unusual pie. It's not topped with anything other than a dusting of powdered sugar and can seriously stand on its own. It's my top choice for the contest.

No. 2 - Maple, Apple, and Cheddar Pie. Ok, this sounds bad. But Apple pie is my grandmother's favorite and she loves heating it up and adding a slice of cheddar cheese to the top. That may be a Northern thing. So, what if the cheese were IN the pie? Would it be overkill or just killing two birds with one stone?

No. 3 - Sunshine's Key Lime Pie. Mari and Poppop moved to Siesta Key, Sarasota in 1974. Since then, Mari has fallen in love with key limes. (Key limes are true limes in my opinion.) The description of this pie by Norman Van Aken is just so delectable that I want to try it. A girl named Sunshine bicycles in and hands over two perfect pies. Perfectly scrumptious, I say.

No. 4 - Limoncello Lemon Meringue Pie. Mari is a sucker for tart and nippy flavors. She loves citrus flavors and since we live in Florida I easily gravitate toward lemon. She's travelled the world and one of her favorite flavors (and mine) is Limoncello liqueur. It's the flavor of Italy. For me, it's the flavor of Bologna, but for her it's the flavor of Naples. Maybe a slice of this pie will have her zooming down the Amalfi coast in a sporty convertible with a dark-haired stranger at the wheel. That actually sounds more like an abduction than an attraction.

I'm a bit torn even though I've mostly decided on the Crack Pie recipe. I love citrus. It's the perfect season for it. Trees all over the neighborhood are heavy with ripe fruit. 

Maybe I'll make two pies. Wish me luck!

Spicy Cranberry Salsa Recipe

In 2009, I spent Thanksgiving in my new home in Gramercy Park. My guests were all Southern expatriates and fellow Bulldawgs gathering to enjoy a feast with friends. My part in hosting was to provide the location and cook the communal turkey as well as three of the side dishes. Four days before the holiday I learned that the gas stove wasn't working and that there wasn't time to get it fixed. Thanks to the genius of my doormen, I was able to cook the turkey in an empty apartment ten floors below. I have to say it all ended well even though I didn't think it would. 

What kicked off the holiday for me was making my friend Adam Orr's Spicy Cranberry Salsa. That salsa along with tortilla chips put a fun spin on the ever-present holiday cranberry. Note to spice lovers, you will want to eat this daily. It's got a sweet heat that is hard to resist.

Adam's Spicy Cranberry Salsa:

Ingredients

  • 2  cups  fresh cranberries
  • 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped orange sections (about 3 oranges)...blood oranges will work nicely here, too
  • 1/3  cup  chopped red onion
  • 1/3  cup  fresh OJ (reserved from cutting the orange segments)
  • 3  tablespoons  sugar
  • 2  tablespoons  chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/4  teaspoon  salt
  • 1/2 to 1 habanero, seeded, deveined and finely minced

Place cranberries in a food processor; pulse 2 to 3 times or until coarsely chopped. Combine cranberries, orange sections, and remaining ingredients in a large bowl, tossing gently to combine. Cover and chill for 4 hours to let flavors mix.

ALSO...

I thought I'd also share my family's recipe for Cranberry Orange Relish. It's more than cranberry sauce. It's zesty and chunky and sweet and a perfect counterpart to the cranberry salsa above. It was also devised in the 1950's so prepare to use Jell-o gelatin.

Cranberry Orange Relish:

Ingredients

  • 3 Navel oranges, grated
  • 3 apples, grated
  • 1 pound of cranberries
  • 2 boxes of Cherry flavored Jell-o gelatin
  • 1 and 1/2 cups sugar

Pulse chopped oranges, apples, and cranberries in the blender 3 to 4 times. Boil 2 cups of water and add both boxes of Jell-o and sugar. Add orange/apple/cranberry mixture and stir well. Pour all ingredients in a large bowl and mix gently to combine. Cover and chill for 4 hours to let set up a bit. *This won't be jello with fruit, I promise. I mean, it is, but it won't taste like it.

Happy Holiday prep!

Interview with Kim Fox - Urban Farmer and Artist

Kim Fox and I have known each other for twenty-six years. We went to high school together and have been close friends ever since. She has always amazed me with her talented artistic ability, and now inspires me with her urban homesteading skills. In thinking about what to write, all I can conjure up is the memory of tasting her fresh-baked bread slathered with melted butter and homemade Concord grape freezer jam. With that thought in mind, I'll let her tell you a bit more about her urban farm.

1. Tell me about your evolution as an urban farmer. How did you get into chickens and urban chicken farming?

I have long been interested in gardening.  I remember helping my dad in the garden as child and eating the lettuce leaves as I worked. Even then I was struck by how good that lettuce was - way better than the heads of iceberg from the grocery. In keeping my own garden I try to learn a little more, expand a bit, each year. I'm also a sucker for hand-me-down plants, flowers, herbs, etc. I figure anything is worth a try.

Seven years ago we were having drinks with friends and the woman said she needed to find someone to take over her beehives after her move. I had had just enough wine to make it sound like a great idea and I volunteered on the spot. I immediately began researching - taking classes locally, reading books from the library, ordering supply catalogs - anything I could do to gain knowledge about this new endeavor.

I loved everything about the bees so much; the smell of the hives, watching them wake up and get to work in the mornings and settle down in the evenings, the delicious honey they made. Unfortunately, the winter after my son was born I checked on the hives and the bees were all dead. It was awful. I'm still not exactly sure what happened but I don't believe it was Colony Collapse Disorder. Rather I believe that my neighbors had had enough of me and the bees and sprayed the hive. Whatever the truth is it was awful to see. I haven't had bees since then. I was wrapped up in raising my son and then we moved to a new neighborhood and, even after three years here, I feel like we're still settling in.  I definitely plan to keep bees again in the near future but I want to make sure that our nearest neighbors are all on board with the idea so as to avoid any tension, fear or animosity.

In this new (old) house I started right away putting in perennials. I think nothing makes a house look more lived in than established plantings. We moved in mid-September and in the rush of beginning a major renovation I insisted on getting a few perennials in the Fall ground. Each year I add more (including any orphan plants the neighbors drop off!) and it's really beginning to take shape. We inherited old, old grape vines that I'm working to bring back to glory. They yield  loads of fruit in the Fall and I make jars and jars of freezer jam for neighbors, friends and family. We have planted apple trees and raspberries. Two years ago we built a large raised bed in the garden off of the kitchen. That is planted with garlic, tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes, and herbs like cilantro, tarragon, rosemary and basil.

One year ago I decided it would be fun to raise chickens. I am not patient and when I get an idea in my head, it's all over. Within weeks, armed with books from the library, I ordered my chicks by mail, pestered random chicken-keepers for information and left over supplies, and set up a brooder in the basement. Once the chicks arrived we began to build a hen house in the back yard to be ready in time for them to outgrow the brooder and move outside.

I knew I would enjoy the process of raising and keeping chickens but I wasn't prepared for loving the hens. I love them. I look forward to seeing them in the morning. I let them out each day to roam our yard and the yards of some nearby neighbors. I take them treats (kitchen scraps) throughout the day just to be able to watch them run to me excitedly. They are pets that happen to lay 2-3 gorgeous, delicious eggs each day. How can it be better?

My dad and step-mom were in town a few weeks ago and we made a feast of fresh pasta with eggs from our hens, sauce made from the tomatoes in the garden, and ground venison from my uncle's recent hunt. We knew exactly where our meal came from and it was heavenly to taste. A true feast.


2. Tell us about your flock.

I have three hens. A Speckled Sussex named Lady Whistle, a Buff Orpington named Chunky Penny, and an Easter Egger names Ms Jackson. The Easter Egger is a mixed breed who lays a lovely blue-green egg. Chunky Penny is the sweetest and actually likes to be held. Ms Jackson is the sassiest and goofiest looking. Lady Whistle is gorgeous and strong and independent.

3. Have you run into any resistance from local government or neighbors? How did you handle it?

Thankfully, my municipality is one that allows hens. They don't allow roosters which make for nuisance neighbors but the hens don't need a man around to lay eggs so we're in luck. The majority of my neighbors seem to love the hens. They get the benefit of fresh eggs without having the burden of the labor so what's not to love? The hens aren't super noisy except when they boast about the eggs they just laid. They are great natural pest-control in the garden and they fertilize like crazy. I have had only one negative run-in with a neighbor who seems to be afraid of the hens. It was totally my fault as I let them free-range but I didn't realize they'd free-range four houses away! The woman called Animal Control as she didn't know to whom the hens belonged. Animal Control came around and interviewed some neighbors and visited me. The Animal Control man loves chickens and said, "If I had my way they be roaming everywhere but in the streets." He lives in the next town and is envious of the fact that my town allows hens and his doesn't. It all was very friendly, but I've taken to minding my hens much more closely in an attempt to be a better neighbor.

4. Are you a member of any urban farming organizations in Pittsburgh?

I am loosely affiliated with a group of Bee and Chicken Keepers. I am working with another woman to start a local group here in the South Hills and we'll attempt to raise awareness about the benefits of raising chickens and also try to work out a good source of organic feed for our area. There are a lot of active agricultural groups here in PIttsburgh and I feel one of my next steps will be to reach out and get involved in one or two of them.

5. How does the urban farmer gig mesh with the other roles you play? (Wife, Mother, Artist, Citizen, Community Member, Etc.)

I think the Mama Farmer role suits me and meshes perfectly with the rest of my life. It was been a joy to get my son, Whistle, involved in every aspect of raising and keeping the hens. It's a terrific way to meet neighbors as they come by and say "Oh my gosh, are those CHICKENS?" which results in a tour of the garden and hen house and often times, a promise to meet at the Saloon up the street for a drink. My artwork is always based on the simple things around me so now it just naturally includes chickens which fit perfectly into my existing stable of birds, bees, farm equipment, etc.

6. What three pieces of advice would you give someone who is considering becoming an urban farmer?

Learn the rules in your town first. I know someone who spent a bunch of money on a hen house set-up only to learn he wasn't allowed to keep hens in his town.

Do your research! Volunteer, read, take classes, get online. There are a million resources for anything you want to get involved in.

Take a leap! Nothing will happen if you don't.

Turning 41 in Tarpon Springs

I have always thought of my birthday as something special. My own personal holiday. The day that the world celebrates my birth. It sounds a little conceited, doesn't it? I don't know where I started thinking of it as being such an extraordinary day. I know that I've always loved birthdays, and that my birthday has always been a celebration. I had a party every year and I still do. It's a big day. I don't go to work. I do whatever I like, eat anything I like, and go wherever I want. The world, being full of people who neither know me nor share my birthday, rarely cooperates with the celebrating. Although there was one particularly memorable birthday in 1989. November 9, 1989. Sound familiar? It's the day the Berlin Wall came down. Talk about a present!

This year, I went over to Caladesi Island for the morning and then up to Tarpon Springs in the afternoon. Caladesi Island is a National Park off the coast of Dunedin, Florida. Its sister island, Honeymoon Island, is also a National Park and the only access point to Caladesi. After a morning of traffic and Tom-Tom nonsense, we finally made it, and boy, was is worth it! 

Such calm, such peace, such a pristine beach practically untouched. Think Florida back in the 60's before the condos and highrises, before tourists who leave trash, before all the people. I'm a beach girl so this was heaven for me. The perfect way to ring in my own personal new year. 

After a few hours on the beach, we headed north a bit to Tarpon Springs, Florida. Tarpon Springs is known for the sponge-diving Greeks who settled there and infused the Gulf Coast with their culture, their cuisine, and their diving expertise. An adorable little town with a warm and welcoming people. This year my birthday cake was baklava. I've been craving baklava since the first drop in temperature. There's something about all that honey and cinnamon that just makes me think that Fall is here. If you're looking for some of this Greek treasure, go to Parthenon Bakery on Dodecanese Boulevard in Tarpon Springs. 

Some of the best baklava I've ever had. Look at that Phyllo dough!

It was a very good day full of new experiences and old recipes mixed with a few very handsome Greek men who dive for sponges in the Gulf of Mexico. One for my personal history book. On to another year!

Food Blog Reading List

I don't know about you, but I read a lot. I am constantly trying to keep up with my favorite food writers and discover some new ones. I wanted to share a few favorite blogs with you. Some of them are a bit more entertaining or visually stimulating while others are just chock-full of information.

Whole Larder Love - The tagline for Rohan's blog is "Grow, gather, hunt, cook" and that pretty much sums it up. Gorgeous photos of the reality of living off the land and making food for a family. Today, I learned how to kill and cook a pigeon. Maybe it's my upbringing, but this is one of my favorite blogs right now. It echoes everything my father taught me about farm life and our relationship with the land and within the food chain.

Cookin' and Shootin' - Drool, drool, drool, drool. Let me wipe my mouth. I've never wanted to eat my laptop more than right now. These ladies know how to cook and shoot photos of what they're eatin' and temptin' me with.

Tartelette -  This photographer's take on a picturesque meal is always stunning. Suddenly I absolutely NEED a slate chalkboard to place my candy on for photographs. (And a few of these blueberry and key lime tea cakes.)

Serious Eats - Of course I head right to the Sweets section. And who wouldn't love a blog that offers Birthday Cake French Toast?

The Kitchn - Not only great photos but solid tips and recipes for a real person's kitchen. Like this how-to for cooking a perfect steak in the oven. With winter coming around the corner, this is extra helpful. And you know my passion for Nutella, well, there's Biscoff's new (Speculoos) cookie spread that is ah-ma-zing. Recipes for the stuff are turning up everywhere. I'm sure you've had the cookies on a flight somewhere. I like the Kitchn blog for keeping me in the loop of every foodie fad that happens.

Gluten-Free Goddess - I do not have Celiac's disease, but for the most part I'm a meat and vegetable girl with a lot of sweets thrown in. Karina Allrich is the best at gluten-free. Her recipes are do-able and delicious. Check out her Autumn favorites here.

Delicious Days - I find myself drawn to Nicky's writing and photography if only for her back-story. She's living in Germany and has worked in the Internet business. She's transitioned to food writer and photographer and just really enjoys good food. I see myself in her a little bit. Wanting to cook for the people I love and share what I make with you all. Her blog is beautiful and interesting and she's a lot of fun to read. Let me send you to the recipe archive. It's a good place to get started.

Chocolate & Zucchini - Clotilde Dusoulier is a Parisian woman who shares her passion for food with me as if I'm a friend. I have a love/hate relationship with Paris. I think because the times I've visited it's been solo and it really is the most romantic city. But the food...oh the food. There's something about French food which just grabs my soul and coats it in a warm buttery sauce. Her blog does almost the same thing to me. Her book, Clotilde's Edible Adventures in Paris, is like a guidebook to goodness.