Downsizing Is Hard to Do

It’s the 11th hour on the last day of the month and I’m trying to write a July blog post before midnight and the month turns to August! Where have I been? Doing one of the most unpleasant things I can think of short of extracting my own tooth: I’ve been “downsizing” or at least digging into the process. I always hate asking myself: “Should it stay or should it go?”. Somethings are simple like stuff that never belonged to you in the first place. It’s easy to give all of those re-gifted Christmas presents to Goodwill since you can’t remember who gave them to you last. What’s harder for me are the items that fall into “What if I need it later?” category.  The “If you haven’t used it in the past six months” rule never has worked for me. Sure enough, I toss it out and that’s when I need it in the next sixty days (kind of like losing a Home Goods receipt).

But what really gets to me is that I’m the sentimental type. I’m the family historian with no heirs to even care about the heirlooms. (More on that later as I pack up antiques to be sold at auction in San Francisco). All weekend, I’ve been tackling the library. I thought books should be easy right? Wrong. If you are an author, you accumulate a lot of them that you collect along the way or were given to you (or were just always there). So here I start with a “no brainer”,  Encylopedias:my worldbooksNobody needs these anymore! But in this set, JFK was still president and I had circled my favorite breeds of dogs that I wanted someday. So I move on to the next set of encyclopedias that belonged to my father:Encyclopedias

Well that should be easier except I can read all his notes that he made in margins while writing reports for school. So I go to an simpler shelf. My family had filled the bookcases on one whole side of the room with out-of-date travel guides and guides to country inns (most of which are no longer are in operation).

Country Inns

There are also lots of recipe books from restaurants that no longer exist :stephensonsEvans Farm Inn

All this time I’m wondering: “Where are my childhood books?” As often happens with anything of meaning around here, it can be found rotting in the basement!Childhood favorites

Aghh! How I would have loved to thumb through these pages again but they are sadly, disintigrating upon touch. So parents out there remember to think about what stands the test of time and what doesn’t (and keep what doesn’t in the basement).

Since my very first cookbook, I’ve acccumulated a lifetime supply. Now I have to start weeding out the ones I know I’ll never even flip through. books across the tableIt’s daunting!

What I’m finding is that I’m really not drawn to keeping coffee table books like The French Laundry Cookbook or themed books with some marketing hook.books I don't need5

For me it’s nostalgia, nostalgia nostalgia. Like the first cookbook my grandmother Molinare gave to me (little did she know that I had made a Linzer torte on my own a year before.)My first Cookbook

And then there are those mid century classics like this one:Betty Crocker Hostess

The deeper I get into this the more I realize this could take a long  time so I turn to the other items I must make tough decisions about…

There’s the London bus Dad brought back from England in 1961. He flew home with it on his lap after buying it for us at Harrod’s.pedigree pramJPG

There’s my Mom’s high school “Hollywood Suitcase”. It was a fad back then to collect stickers from all the places you traveled.Mom and Hollywood suitcase

And then there’s lots of eclectic stuff that’s like an armor breast plate and battle axe:Armor

There’s a broken balalaika my brother collected back when he was fascinated by all things Dr Zhivago. The movie came out when he was in grade school and motivated him to learn to play the balalaika. Of course, it was about as difficult to master as his Russian language lessons. He eventually switched to the Saxaphone lessons and French class.


Well it’s close to midnight and you prabably get the idea… I still have A LOT of work to do! So stayed tuned as I try to sort through an entire lifetime, starting in the library.

Beet Noodles—A New Summer Slaw

packaged beet noodles

This weekend I found myself drawn to a package of “beet noodles” in the produce section of Whole Foods. I’ve used raw, shredded beets on salads all of the time and assumed it would be the same thing. Close but not quite… Who remembers the “Mobius Strip” from middle school math class? It’s a sort of symbol for infinity, being a surface with only one side.

mobius stripIf your teacher was anything like mine, she had you take a pair of scissors and split the paper band by cutting it around the middle without touching the sides. This turned into a bigger Mobius strip. Do it again and it just keeps growing into a larger and narrower loop. Well, that’s the best way to describe opening the box of beet noodles. As I kept pulling out the red shreds, It was like an endless tangle with no beginning or end.

bowl of beet noodles

I had to start cutting them into about 4″ sections. My goal was to mix them into a red cabbage slaw. Rather than let the cabbage dilute the dressing as it macerates, I always soak my shredded cabbage overnight in a brine of water.   To do this: Place shredded cabbage in a bowl and cover with water with 1 tsp added salt. Refrigerate at least four hours . Squeeze the cabbage until all of the water is wrung out and allow it to drain in a colander. This reduces the moisture content of the cabbage so your slaw won’t have watered down dressing.

cabbage in colandar


brined and squeezed red cabbage

Next, I toss the beet noodles with the cabbage and a creamy coleslaw dressing. Serve garnished with chopped scallions. I can’t tell you how refreshing this on a hot summer night  paired with with something from the grill .


3-4 cups of beet noodles

3 -4 cups brined, drained cabbage (as described above)

2 Tbs minced scallion

Creamy slaw dressing

Toss beet noodles and cabbage with dressing and garnish with scallions


3/4 cup mayonaise

1/4 cup sugar

1 Tbs cider vinegar

1/2 cup sour cream

1/4 tsp celery seed

2 Tbs minced scallion

salt and pepper to taste.

Combine ingredients for the dressing with a wire whisk until blended. This is approximately the amount of dressing you’ll need give or take so start adding it gradually to the consistency you prefer.

beet noodle salad in bowl



Happy Friday the 13th


OK– most people don’t mark this day on their calendar…

circle around 13

It’s not like you are supposed to prepare a special menu, buy someone a gift or attend a religious service. Nobody gives or gets candy. Nobody fire’s up the BBQ grill.

Although there are many theories as to why mankind has maligned the number 13,  going back to Jesus and the last supper’s 13 diners, it is more likely  a culmination of coincidences. In my life, it’s exactly that…a culmination of coincidences.

Here’s how it all started for me:  I was born on the 13th of May. No it wasn’t a Friday. Mom went into labor on Mother’s day and I came into the world on a Monday morning. (Maybe that’s why I find it so hard to leap out of bed on Monday mornings.) I recall two Friday the 13th birthdays in my childhood and teens. Both parties were preempted by severe weather and tornado watches/warnings. I know, I know, it’s the Midwest in May— what do you expect!

But then it gets creepy. Pets start dying on the 13th or at thirteen years of age. I’ve had a lot of pets in my life although I do concede that none of them passed on a Friday. My parrot, Captain Coco, actually died on Easter Sunday when it was on April 13th. I walked into the dining room carrying a sweet potato casserole and there he was, feet facing up on the floor of his cage.

Then came “the big one”, the San Andreas Fault of superstition. My beloved father died on October 13th. Ironically, as a child I used to barter with him about changing my birthday to an unbirthday celebration on  October 13th because the weather was more predictable that time of year. No, Dad’s death wasn’t on a Friday either. It was Columbus Day, a Monday. Nonetheless I was starting to get a little PSTD about the number “13” on the calendar, especially when it fell on a holiday.

Finally, Friday came through. It was a hot afternoon on July 13th, 2012. I was on my computer in the den and Mom was sitting on the sofa complaining of thirst. I walked into the kitchen to get her some water and heard a thud and a moan behind me. Mom had decided to follow me and apparently tripped on our Boston Terrier, Toby. She broke her hip and our lives have never been the same since.

For three and a half years, Mom has been in hospice at home in our living room. Now, coming up on the 13th of the month, Mom has abruptly been discharged from hospice care. (This is not because she doesn’t still need it but that’s a whole other blog post). So I’m starting to feel the stress set in as my birthday looms closer by the hour.

According to Stuart Vyse, professor of psycology at Connecticut College, “Most superstitions arise as a method of coping with uncertainty”. I totally get that. So now I’m trying to fight back by  owning my superstition and identifying examples to disprove it.    Maybe I can prevail over the Jinxism mentality. Maybe I can avoid noticing patterns in case anything does happen. Maybe I can actually learn to smile when I hear “Happy Friday the 13th!” instead of “Happy Birthday!”.Happy Friday 13th









“Taking Flight” Project Return Birdhouse Auction Lands in Fairfield

Project ReturnIt’s that time of year again for the annual Project Return Birdhouse Auction. For those of you who’ve followed my blog from previous years, you know that I don’t do birdhouses. Not that I wouldn’t love to design one but I’m not skilled in carpentry.

My forte is drawing anthropomorphized animals in vintage clothing. I’m not sure if that’s actually a skill or simply a childhood obsession I never quite outgrew. What I find fascinating about the “birdhouse” theme is that so many donations are loose interpretations, defined by the artist as a birdhouse. This is particularly true of the indoor variety. Then there is bird-related art (where I come in) along with whimsical jewelry.

So this year I was searching for some inspiration and thought out loud: “What more logical historical character to morph into a bird than Admiral Byrd!” I usually begin with lots of doodle sketches from vague images I carry around in my head. Kind of like this one:first sketch

But then I thought: No… no, the century on this admiral uniform  predates Byrd. So I started searching for his image.

bird in parka

What first comes to mind is Byrd, the Antarctic explorer. Hmmm, I should draw him in a parka? But then I think of him with penguins. I should either draw Byrd with his penguins or maybe as a penguin?Byrd with penguins

On second thought, it’s kind of hard to draw a uniform on a penguin other than a tuxedo so I think I’ll go with some kind of of bird

Thinking of birds and flight, I thought about Byrd being a pilot— so maybe I should draw him in aviator goggles with his plane?Lt_com_byrd_and_aircraft

However, this poster of his plane made me think of Byrd in a military dress uniform (as was my first inclination) .poster of bird
admiral bird black jacket


So I drew my version of “Admiral Bird”…final sketch

and framed it.framed

As a bonus, I’m also throwing in an autographed copy of The First Turkey Day. It’s in the spirit of fractured fairy tales where the Pilgrims are turkeys who came over on “The Mayfowler.”35EB5653-E9C3-4E65-889E-1BB283C9300D

This will be the fifth year I’ve submitted a donation for the event. What’s new this year is a big change of venue. Instead of the Rolling Hill’s Country Club in Wilton, CT, the auction will take on a whole new vibe at FTC (Fairfield Theater Company) on Sanford Street in Fairfield, CT,  right next to the train stain. Also new will be the FREE preview reception on Friday, April 1 from 6 to 8 p.m.  So come meet the artists (and me)! On Saturday morning, April 2, it’s a family event with a bagel breakfast from 10  to noon.  Of course, the main event will be the Latin Dance Party Auction Gala from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. All proceeds go to a most worthy cause that helps change girls lives for the better. For tickets and info visit:


Beatrix Potter Easter Brunch

Once upon a time, I wrote my first book. It was simply called The Children’s Party Handbook and subtitled Fantasy, Food and Fun.

Back in the day, my publisher was more concerned with focusing on timeless themes and avoiding trends that would make the book seem dated in a few years. The photos were intentionally set up without a child in view because their clothing or hair might “date” the book down the road.

In this new world of publishing, the opposite is true. It’s all about riding the crest of trends before they’re already over. In a paperless world, a book’s shelf life no longer matters and longevity is not the goal.

Now I thumb through these pages with nostalgia.  I had a very good run with my first book and have no regrets with the decision to feature classic kid’s parties and holiday themes like a Beatrix Potter Easter Brunch.title page

In addition to the traditional Easter egg, kids step into the storybook world of Beatrix Potter with games like Mr. McGregor’s Garden, The Pie and the Patty Pan and The Roly-Poly Pudding. Cake and ice cream are quintessential to all kids parties and this one had Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail Cakes along with Puddle-Duck Ice Cream…

flopsy mopsy and cottontail cakespuddle duck ice cream

What’s my favorite recipe from the Beatrix Potter Easter Brunch? As an adult I find “Rabbit Eggs” in Easter Baskets a great dish for entertaining. You may ask what are rabbit eggs? Some kind of Cadbury chocolate fondue? Not exactly, but you might be on the right track…page from book

Golden buck or Welsh rarebit is often referred to in England as “rabbit.” By any name it’s a dish consisting of a rich cheddar cheese sauce, kind of like a cheese fondue. Add hard-cooked egg whites and grate the yolks over the top and you are channeling a vintage dish known as eggs goldenrod ( a popular menu item  from 1920s tea rooms).

For this party, the idea is to serve them in pastry baskets made from cream puff dough. That’s what I’m going to show you how to do today, step by step:

For Baskets:

1 cup butter

2 cups water

2 cups flour

8 eggs

Preheat oven to 400° F. Butter the sides of 10, 6- oz custard cups and place in the freezer for a few minutes so that dough will adhere to the sides which should only take a few minutes. (If you  don’t have that many custard cups,  do these in two batches. You can also cut the recipe in half if serving fewer guests.)

Bring water and butter to a boil in a large saucepan. As soon as butter melts, add flour and beat vigorously with a wire whisk over medium heat until the mixture forms a ball.8flour and butter ball
Remove from heat and beat in eggs one at a time until smooth.9pate chaud with eggsPlace about 2-3 heaping Tablespoons of dough into each chilled custard cup and spread evenly with a spatula covering all of the surfaces. Bake 30-35 minutes.chilled cup10spreading in cupsingle lined cupdouble cup12baked bowls

Meanwhile, Line baking sheets with parchment paper and fill a large pastry bag with remaining dough. Pipe U shapes for basket handles.11piping handlesJPGBake about 18 to 20 minutes until golden.13 baked handles

At this point, baskets and handles may be prepared a day ahead and rewarmed on a foil covered try before serving. The filling may also be prepared in advance.

“Rabbit Eggs”

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup flour

1/2 tsp onion powder

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp dry mustard

grated black pepper and rosemary to taste

1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

2 cups milk (warm in microwave for 2 minutes)

2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

12 hard cooked eggs

1/2 cup chopped parsley or arugala

Melt butter, flour, onion powder, salt and dry mustard in a medium saucepan and stir over medium heat with a wire whisk until you have a bubbling roux.1water butter flour2rouxNow blend in milk and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until thickened. Season with Worcestershire, pepper and rosemary to taste.3sauce

Blend in cheese until melted.4cheese to sauceSplit eggs in half and separate yolks from whites.6sepated eggsSlice up egg whites and stir into sauce, reserving yolks. Trim bottoms of handles so that they are flat. Fill baskets with egg filling and top with chopped egg yolk. Garnish around edges with parsley or arugula for “grass.” Use pieces of dried spaghetti like you would toothpicks to anchor the handles in place on baskets (this is safer to do around small children than using toothpicks).14 finished basket on green

The idea of using cream puff bowls is not limited to this dish. It works equally well with egg salad or chicken salad. Want to make a big impact? Try spreading the dough into a high rimmed glass pie plate and make yourself a full size Easter basket! Speaking of Easter baskets, be sure to swipe all of those hard cooked eggs and put them back in the fridge tonight so you can have “Rabbit Eggs” tomorrow.






Irish Mac & Cheese: A Post-Holiday Favorite

The party’s over, so now what? You’re probably thinking that it’s time for me to move on from St Patrick’s Day, with Easter coming this weekend.tableWell, I promise I also have that on my radar, but I just wanted to share tonight’s dinner with you. Move over, lobster mac and pulled pork mac. You’ve got to try Irish mac & cheese!

First, you start with leftover corned beef.

sliced corned beef

That’s the whole point. You know how some of us will roast two turkey’s on Thanksgiving just for leftovers? We do the same thing on St. Patrick’s Day, with corned beef brisket, as I love my hash for brunch. Start by making a Béchamel sauce with butter, flour and milk, and then stir in grated cheddar cheese. In this dish, I prefer to use Kerry Gold’s Vintage Cheddar. Remember to add 1/2 cup grated cheese for every cup of milk.

keery Gold Vintage Cheddar

Next, add cooked elbow macaroni.  The magic ratio is two parts sauce to one part pasta, to guarantee a creamy mac & cheese casserole.  sauceboat with mac and cheeseI can’t emphasize this enough. It’s always disappointing to spoon into a casserole of dried out, gluey macaroni mass. In fact, you may notice I’m not giving specific measurements for the recipe. That’s because I believe in making mac & cheese to order according to the number of servings I need. If it sits in a casserole overnight, the pasta will absorb even more of the liquid as the pasta continues to swell from the sauce and the goal is to keep it creamy (also we’re making this with leftovers from the fridge so whatever quantity you have is the right amount).corned beef cubessauceboat with corned beef

After stirring in cubed corned beef, spread it into a casserole or ramekin and top with a mixture of buttered, dry bread crumbs and parmesan cheese. (I always use leftover Irish soda bread for this if I have any.) Bake uncovered at 400° until bubbling and golden brown on top.Mac & Sprouts

So with that extremely comforting comfort food, I’ll say goodnight and start working on my Easter post in the morning.

A Presidential Dessert

It’s that time of year again when Monday holiday sales become a festive event to break the tedium of cabin fever. I even ventured up to the mall this morning to beat the snow and noticed how it was already filling up with stir crazy school kids (parents in tow) on their day off.

I started thinking about President’s Days past from my childhood. Actually, there wasn’t such a thing yet. We acknowledged George Washington’s birthday on February 22nd and Abe Lincoln’s on February 12th.  I liked celebrating  two separate birthdays back then but I guess it made more economic and political sense to roll it all into one three day weekend and pay tribute to unsung presidents like James Polk and Millard Fillmore.

So what did we do to honor our founding fathers? It all depended on the weather. Sometimes we’d go to a museum or a movie and sometimes we went ice skating and had snowball fights. On Washington’s birthday, we always baked a cherry pie andsweetcherrypiegaryfriedman

(if it was a really wintery day like today) we’d serve it with SNOW ICE CREAM.

Snow ice cream is a very ephemeral dessert. It’s only available on certain days of the year and it doesn’t last very long while you are making it so you have to eat it really fast. That’s what makes it all the more alluring to children. It’s so easy to whip up and can be adapted to dietary needs. For example, you can substitute honey for sugar. Lactose problems? Almond milk  can be used in place of milk or cream. (In fact, if you do that and use “sweetened vanilla” you can just mix it with snow and you are done!) Just remember to tell the kids that the most important ingredient is CLEAN snow!

Here’s how mom did it: For two kids she’d mix 1/2 cup of light cream or half and half with 2 tsps of vanilla extract and 2 Tbs of sugar.

SIC ingredients

Then we’d mix it with 4-5 cups of snow (depending on if it was wet or dry snow).bowl of fluffy snowstirring into snow

Remember this can be made with a lot less fat if you use milk or dairy free altogether if you try almond milk.SIC in bowl

For most of us, I’m not sure snow ice cream comes to mind when thinking of “All American” or patriotic desserts but it is symbolic of a season that would seem endless if we weren’t distracted by ground hog shadows, chocolate hearts and presidents.


“It’s Coming..It’s Coming”

Snow days are interesting sociological events. There was a time when I found them relaxing and restorative. As a teen, I caught up on my homework and phone calls since it was before the days of cellular and you knew all of your friends were at home. As an adult, I felt snow signaled a break from the daily grind. It was time to put a stew on the stove, bake a pie, read a book or (if I was really ambitious)  clean out a closet. What better time to tackle a line on my New Year’s resolution list… In a perfect world!

In reality,  blizzards became big ratings for the media. Funny how more sophisticated and accurate forecasting led to more frequent and frenzied predictions of doom.  Weather worriers like me must tune in for the latest anxiety producing updates. Maybe living through Irene, Sandy and Nemo makes north easterners a little PSTD when it comes to storms. Or maybe the news just thrives on apocolyptic sounding forecast. For whatever reason, “preparedness” results in rushes on grocery stores for all those essentials of life like bread and milk:

bread and milk sandwich

My only guess is to make the unofficial snow day bread and milk sandwich? I really don’t get it because no one ever mentions getting peanut butter for the bread. (Most likely because some viewers would be allergic to that.) Too bad because deli meat or cheese to put on the bread would be a bad idea in a power failure. The peanut butter wouldn’t spoil… but then there’s that milk in the refrigerator. It goes bad faster than just about anything else!

Seriously I’d rather not stock up on things I would otherwise never eat on an ordinary day. Without a stand by generator, I’ve also given up on visions of cooking comfort food from scratch while binge watching HBO series in the background. I’ve learned that a full fridge and freezer on the eve of a storm works like Murphy’s Law in my house. It will jinx the power into going out!

Having spent my college years on Long Island, I remember a storm that paralyzed the Long Island Expressway for days. People were pulled from their cars and brought to local fire departments. My dad had to spend the weekend in the Syosset fire house because there was no way to get home.  I saw this photo on Facebook of a traffic sign on The Northern State and just had to say: Godzilla is the best name for the next monster storm! The mania I saw on Friday afternoon in the Fairfield Connecticut Whole Foods was like a grade b movie.

Lizzard warningThe truth is, no matter how much you try to prepare for a giant blizzard or lizard  strike you are going to be without something you need and will have wasted time and money buying things you don’t.

I have my flashlights, batteries, blankets, and enough previously forgotten food in the freezer to survive until the snow plow comes down the road and reunites me with the outside world.

As for Godzilla, we used to play his movies at junior high school Halloween  parties and found you can make the world right again by running the film backwards!Godzilla backwards

Baked Potatoes AuGratin– A New Year’s tradition

Certain Holiday rituals are simply timeless, like “Auld Lang Syne” playing when the ball drops in Times Square on New Years Eve. In our house, some kind of  au gratin or escalloped potatoes are as much a New Year’s tradition as that old Scottish tune imortalized by Guy Lombardo.

The dish is really very versatile as you can mix and mach the cheeses and toppings. The magic is in the “mornay” or cheese sauce you create by melting your favorite into a basic bechamel. One year I might use a sharp Wisconsin cheddar and the next a blend of Swiss and Gruyere. Even the topping is open for interpretation. The family heirloom recipe was made with dry buttered bread crumbs but we’ve also  tried using crushed potato chips or pretzels in the past. The outcome is always different but you rarely can go wrong.

The version I’m sharing today is what we just served for our New Year’s dinner. I made it with Vermont cheddar and chives and topped it off with panko bread crumbs. Unlike many recipes, this one begins with baked russets not raw sliced potatoes. It can be made a couple days in advance. Afterall, there are more festive places to be on  New Year’s Eve than stirring sauce on top of the stove.

(Note- this recipe is for 4-6 servings but can easily be doubled for a 3 qt casserole or two 1 1/2 qt casseroles.)

3 large russet potatoes

4 Tbs butter

1 clove crushed garlic

4 Tbs flour

1/2 tsp salt

2 1/4 cups warm whole milk

1 1/2  cups grated Vermont cheddar cheese

2 Tbs snipped chives

2 Tbs grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup panko bread crumbs mixed with 1 Tbs melted butter


Preaheat oven to 400° and place potatoes on a baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour and remove from oven. Pierce with a fork to let out steam and allow to cool to room temp.

baked potatoes

Meanwhile, make the sauce by melting butter in a medium saucepan and sauteing garlic. Blend in flour with a wire whisk then slowly blend in milk, stirring until thickened and smooth. Blend in 1 cup of cheese until melted and stir in chives.

cheese sauce

Carefully pull the skin off of potatoes that have puffed away and become loose but leave the skin that still clinging to the potato. Slice in thin slices and arange standing on side in a 1 1/2 qt buttered casserole dish.

sliced potatoes

Cover potatoes with sauce and sprinkle with remaining 1/ cup of cheddar cheese.Casserole with cheeseG_2845

Combine Parmesan with panko bread crumbs.

Panko crumbs

Spoon over casserole.

unbaked finished casserole

Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to bake. Preheat oven to 400°  and bake 45-55 minutes or until bubbling and golden brown on top. (If you are baking this right after assembling, reduce the cooking time by about 15 minutes.)

baked casserole

What’s On Your Christmas Cookie List?

meringue mushrooms

It’s that time of year when anyone under the age of six will be asked by every well-meaning adult they meet : “What do you want Santa to bring you this year? I remember those days and how the obligatory question was usually followed by little interest in the actual answer. It’s kind of like : “Hi, how are you?” with  the expected response being “Im fine”. No one really wants to know the details of how you are feeling that day in much the same way adults didn’t really want to hear a laundry list to Santa.

As a food writer, I frequently get a very similar question every holiday season. What are your favorite Christmas cookies? In the beginning,  I was taken off guard much the same way I felt when asked about my favorite song or movie. Hmmm… “I should know this, shouldn’t I?” and yet somehow I didn’t have a canned response prepared. About twenty minutes later, I usually had it figured out but the conversation had moved on to something else.

Well, I’ve had plenty of time to think about it this year. Favorite cookies aren’t just the ones you like to eat but the ones you like to bake. I’ll be brutally honest with you. I don’t have a lot of nostalgic memories surrounding rolling out massive quantities of sugar cookie or gingerbread dough. First with Mom, and later me, but it’s always the same mental image: An assembly line of baking sheets stacking up in a holding pattern the night before a big cookie exchange. The kitchen would be heating up and so would the dough that was sticking to the board, pastry cloth, marble or whatever we were using that year. Throughout the kitchen it was a winter wonderland of flour storms. There were hot spots in the oven and it always made me sad to rescue the santas and ginger men with burnt off or broken arms. I’d do my best to repair them with “first aide” frosting.  After an exhausting day of cookie baking, it was time to call for pizza.

There are some baking techniques that are just more pleasurable than others. My holiday stress busters are mushroom meringues or  candy cane cookies . There’s something about whipping up egg whites and turning them into toadstools with a pastry bag. It’s almost like witchcraft. The crispy, delicate mushrooms are the same that adorn a yule log cake. The candy cane cookies are easily modeled from ropes of dough; very therapeutic and entertaining for kids. It’s like working with Play Doh. I like to package the mushroom meringues in produce cartons as gift trays. The candy cane cookies make delicious tree ornaments. Christmas Eve is just one week off so there’s still time to have some fun in the kitchen and share it with friends!

Mushroom Meringue Cookies

4 large egg whites, room temperature

1/2 tsp cream of tartar

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 cup of sugar

1-2 Tbs cocoa

12 oz package semisweet chocolate baking chips

1 Tbs butter flavored shortening

Preheat oven to 250°F

In a large mixing bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar with an electric mixer just until soft peaks barely start to form. Combine sugar and cinnamon. Gradually add one tablespoon at a time and continue beating until stiff, shiny BUT NOT DRY peaks form.

Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Spoon meringue into a very large pastry bag fitted with a large round writing tip. Pipe 40 mounds, 1 1/2″ in diameter for mushroom “caps” on one sheet. Flatten any points with the back of a spoon. On the second sheet, pipe 40 pointed mounds for mushroom “stems”.

Sift cocoa through a mesh sieve over the tops of caps and stems. Bake 30 minutes. Turn off heat and leave meringues in oven for 3 more hours. When cool and dry, carefully remove meringues from paper.

Melt chocolate with shortening in the top of a double boiler over barely simmering water. Stir until smooth. With a sharp pointed knife, carefully pierce a small hole in the bottom of each mushroom cap. Spread chocolate on to bottoms of caps and gently push a stem into the chocolate.  Makes between 36 to 42 cookies.

Candy Cane Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter

1/2 cup shortening

1 cup powdered sugar

1 egg

1 1/2 tsp almond extract

1 tsp vanilla extract

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp red food color

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup crushed red and white peppermint candy or candy canes


Preheat oven to 375°F
Line a large baking sheet with baking parchment paper. Cream butter, sugar and powdered sugar. Blend in egg, almond and vanilla extracts,flour and salt. Divide dough in half and tint one part with red food coloring. For each cookie, shape one heaping teaspoon  each of red  dough and plain dough into 4″ropes. Twist together like a candy cane and place on sheet. when all cookies have been shaped bake about 9 minutes until set but only very lightly browned. While cookies are baking, combine sugar and crushed candy. Immediately sprinkle candy mixture on hot cookies as soon as they come out of the oven. Gently remove cookies with a spatuala after cooling. Makes about 4 dozen
Candy Cane cookies