43 days til christmas

Holiday gift guide 2015

18 November 2015

Supersoft beanies and disco lights, teepees, the world’s best almonds, jewelry and my usual assortment of silly stocking stuffers, this year’s collection is more eclectic than in the past, as the kids in the extended family are growing up.

In five years, this is the earliest I’ve ever gotten out a holiday gift guide. Woohoo! Hope this helps you get a jumpstart too.

Disco light

disco light

This nifty little plug-in is a party on the go. Get a group of kids, a dark room, loud music, and this spinning, rainbow disco light ($9) will keep them going forever. It’s kind of amazing how such a tiny piece of equipment (5×3-inches) can throw off so much fun. I love giving this to my daughter’s friends, who all seem to have karaoke in their future. read on…


Every Thanksgiving I try a new turkey method – different turkey, different brine, different roasting method – and though I’ve had a lot of really good results, I’m never convinced enough to call a winner. Some are easy but meh, or great but too messy/involved.

Last year I tried two new approaches: 1) splitting the turkey in half (a cheater’s version of spatchcocking) and 2) dry brining. Much to my surprise, both methods made the whole turkey process much easier – and just as good – as any other year. Here’s the lowdown, if you want to try one, or both:

Dry brining: Just salt and time – that’s all there is to it. Sprinkle your bird the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and that’s pretty much all the prep you need. Dry brining, a salting technique used by the late Judy Rodgers of San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe to produce her legendary roast chickens, gives turkey excellent flavor without the mess and refrigeration issues of wet brining. I’m officially over trying to safely store a toddler-sized poultry carcass sloshing in seasoned water.

Splitting the turkey: A split bird cooks in half the time of a whole one, freeing up valuable oven space on the big day. And in the fridge, two halves of a turkey take up much less space than one hulking body.

Regular spatchcocking (also less-accurately called butterflying) – easily managed with sharp kitchen shears on a chicken – is a daunting task on a heavy, slippery, 20-plus pound turkey. But I tried an alternate method from the Kitchn that easily splits the front half of the bird from the back half, allowing the white meat to cook separately from the dark.

Normal spatchcocking of a bird is kind of like slitting open a round globe and flattening it into a map of the world. First you cut along either side of the backbone and remove it. Then you open up the body and force down on the breastbone to collapse it, pressing the breast down so that the whole bird splays out more or less flat.

In the Kitchn’s method, you completely slice the two sides of the bird, separating the breast/wing front half from the thigh/drumstick back half. The white meat now cooks separately from the dark meat, and you can remove one half from the oven if it is ready before the other half is done.

As with regular spatchcocking, you can fully season both sides of the meat instead of having the undersides inaccessible in the turkey cavity. And all the skin is on top, giving you more brown crispness to go around.

The split turkey can cook at hotter and faster than a whole turkey. It’s a revelation to realize you can cook a turkey in 45 minutes instead of several hours. Even the largest turkey, which might take 5-plus hours when roasted whole, is done in two hours when cooked in half. read on…


caramel dip apples

Caramel dip for apples

30 October 2015

If an apple a day keeps the doctor away, we’re good for the next month with the dozens of apples we’ve been eating this week dunked in caramel dip. Set out a dish of gooey caramel, with flaky sea salt or chopped salted peanuts on top, and the apple cores pile up quickly.

I’m not a candy maker, so this is caramel dip for dummies – without the corn syrup and mystery ingredients of the commercial stuff. If you’re a pro, making caramel the real way – by melting sugar and adding butter and cream – is fast and easy. But a distracted and imprecise home cook like me is more likely to get a grainy crystalized fail. I don’t want that for you.

This recipe may not be purist perfection, but it’s easy to make and hard to mess up. A gooey guilty pleasure, this is caramel apples with less work. Caramel snobs can turn up their noses while the rest of us chow down. read on…



Buttermilk cornbread

30 October 2015

It’s Halloween tomorrow, and I have two recipes to share: the perfect cornbread (because chili and cornbread is such a perfect pre-trick-or-treating meal) and caramel dip for fall’s fresh apples. Cornbread first, because dinner before dessert.

Often cornbread has a slightly off taste, and it’s almost always because the baking soda or baking powder amount is not right. This recipe keeps it simple – just a bit of baking soda combined with the tangy magic of buttermilk to give a great moist lightness and flavor.

If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use a mix of plain yogurt and milk, as I do more often than not, or even regular milk with a teaspoon of vinegar to sour it.

Sugar in cornbread is one of those things, like beans in chili, that gets folks riled up. Yes, I make an inauthentically quick ground-meat-and-beans chili (I even make an all-veggie chili, horrors!). And though I don’t want my cornbread sweet like cake, I think a little sugar rounds out the cornbread flavor, just like a little salt does for every sweet thing I bake.

But cornbread is one of those recipes that can take infinite variations. Add cheese if you like, or corn kernels, or chopped chiles. Or extra sugar. Your cornbread, your rules. read on…


rice sugar flour

Process of elimination

23 October 2015

I’ll never be cured of the eczema that has plagued me since birth, but I’m as close to normal as I have ever been. For six weeks I’ve cut out sugar, wheat and rice from my diet, and although I’m jonesing for toast and jam, I have to admit I’m less itchy than I’ve been my entire life.

Four years ago I endured six months of skin torture – by far the worst eczema breakout of my life, which I tried to fix with Prednisone, which didn’t fix the eczema but triggered shingles on top of it all. Desperate, I researched the universe of eczema remedies and tried every one that seemed like it had a chance, including a stringent elimination diet that excluded dairy, sugar, all grains and even some vegetables. I threw everything at the problem, but my condition was out of control, and nothing seemed to make a difference.

In the end, I finally got back to California – we were living temporarily in Ohio at the time – and my enthusiastic, upbeat Stanford dermatologist (who says I’m not the worst adult eczema patient he has…just the second worst) eventually subdued my renegade rash with a new arsenal of cortisone creams.

Dermatology is strong on symptom management but not much focused on root causes. My exceptional dermatologist finally developed a system to reduce the bacteria load on my sensitive skin, which helps tremendously, but when I told him about my elimination diet efforts, he was honestly confused as to why I would go through the trouble when I can manage my eczema with medication.

But I can’t ignore what seems like a relentless message from my body, telling me I’m doing something it doesn’t like. I’ve always muffled it with medication, but over time the unhappy message has gotten louder. I’m trying now to understand what my body is saying. It seems like a mistake to ignore it.

So when my mom’s excellent acupuncturist recommended an herbal detox combined with the wheat/sugar/rice elimination, I groaned but was willing to give it another try. This time I would be under the supervision of a skilled professional instead of my own frantic fumbling of four years ago. read on…


Of all the sweet indulgences – ice cream, chocolate, doughnuts – the hardest for me to do without are baked goods. Baking is what got me into the kitchen in the first place, as a sweet-toothed kid with a mom who cooked brilliantly but baked only with Bisquick.

In my past five weeks of sugar/wheat/rice elimination, we’ve had three family birthdays on top of our usual activity, and even as I made treat after treat for everyone else – chocolate pie, pavlova, homemade pudding (to use up my egg yolks from pavlova-making), banana bread, pumpkin applesauce cake, apple cake, frosted birthday cake, chocolate chip cookie cake, cranberry cream scones, buttermilk cake – I never ate any of it.

But these soft, tender pumpkin cookies broke me down.

I have a beef with pumpkin products that are tinted orange but don’t taste anything like pumpkin. These pumpkin cookies are the real deal – soft and cakey, rich with pumpkin and generously spiced for a cinnamon tingle.

You don’t need the chocolate chips – without them, the cookies are a pure pumpkin delight, supermoist and melting in your mouth with the sweet taste of fall. But once you’ve had the counterpoint of chocolate, with its dark silky sweetness, it’s hard to go without it.

These are fast and easy cookies, no dough chilling, no waiting, just drop spoonfuls, bake and eat. Many pumpkin cookie recipes have frosting, but this is a pumpkin cookie that can stand alone, with or without the chocolate. read on…



8 October 2015 Family
Thumbnail image for Paris

I’m four weeks into a six week no-wheat, no-sugar, no-rice experiment, and I hope to heck it’s good for my health because it’s definitely not so great for my joie de vivre. Or maybe I hope it’s terrible for my health so I when I’m done I can get on with my regularly scheduled life. […]

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24 September 2015 Food
Thumbnail image for Pavlova

I think the best way to describe pavlova, beloved dessert of Australia and New Zealand, is part cake, part cloud – a thick layer of whipped cream over a round bed of meringue, crackly sweet on the outside, soft and marshmallowy inside, with fresh fruit scattered over it all. It feels like cake, but it […]

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Oktoberfest Obatzda (Bavarian cheese spread)

11 September 2015 Food
Thumbnail image for Oktoberfest Obatzda (Bavarian cheese spread)

There’s no shortage of Oktoberfest celebrations in the United States – self-declared Germans are the highest-ranked ancestry group in the country, at 17% of the US population – and starting next week millions of Americans will be partying like it’s Bavaria, with beer, sausages, sauerkraut, warm potato salad and big soft pretzels. But we in […]

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Honey (or maple) fried ham

3 September 2015 Breakfast
Thumbnail image for Honey (or maple) fried ham

My 9-year old discovered ham this summer. He won’t venture out of his safe island of starchy food at home, but lo and behold he came home from his cousins’ house raving about newly discovered exotica…ham sandwiches! Suddenly ham is the best thing ever. I never used to buy ham – there are a million […]

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