Sometimes you have to listen hard to hear the universe whispering, and other times it pokes you so persistently you want to tell it to calm down already, you got the message.

Christmas cookies aren’t normally in my December lineup – holiday sweets are everywhere already, and Santa doesn’t have time to bake, for Pete’s sake – but driving in my car Friday I had a sudden memory of my favorite cookie: a melt-in-your-mouth cloud of powdered sugar, hiding a tender, buttery shortbread nugget with the fine crunch of nuts. In California I’ve always known these as Mexican wedding cookies, but I’ve also heard them called Italian wedding cookies, Russian tea cakes or snowballs.

Saturday morning I woke up to an email from my friend Jojo in Munich, with a picture attached: crescent-shaped holiday cookies, covered with powdered sugar. A Bavarian Christmas tradition, Vanillekipferl are made with finely chopped almonds instead of the pecans used in Mexican wedding cookies. Some Vanillekipferl recipes include egg, but I love the crumbly soft texture of Mexican wedding cookies, which only have butter, flour and powdered sugar. I smiled and took out butter to soften.

I hadn’t made the cookies in years, so I tried a few versions to compare, testing out almonds, pecans and walnuts. It’s hard to go wrong with butter and powdered sugar. I found it impossible to pick a favorite.

Over the weekend I read through The Pollan Family Table – a cookbook released this fall featuring fresh, uncomplicated family food – which in an unusual move last week I’d agreed to review here. I’m a sucker for healthful home cooking, and cooking for big families is my jam. It’s also the Pollan family, which includes food luminary Michael Pollan, actor Tracy Pollan, two more sisters and their mom, former New York magazine writer Corky Pollan. A family of food lovers and writers? I couldn’t say no.

When I got to the desserts chapter Monday morning, I had to laugh when I flipped to “Isaac’s Mexican wedding cookies”: a take by Michael Pollan’s son on the traditional recipe, but with the powdered sugar coating spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg.

It seems a bit unfair to single out a dessert to represent the Pollan family collection, when the book in general is health-conscious in a relaxed, real-food kind of way. But once I tried the subtle tingle of the spiced cookie, festive and unexpected, I knew it was the recipe I had to share with you here.

read on…

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honey roasted almonds

Snowy honey roasted almonds

11 December 2014

I’ve solved half my almond problem.

I know it doesn’t seem like a problem, having the most incredible almond vendor at the farmers market I go to every week. Rodin Farms sells the most killer almonds – some savory, some sweet, all super fresh and super crisp – and though they’re there year round, and though I love supporting local food producers, my control streak rejects being dependent on Rodin for what seems like a fix I should be able to produce on my own.

The drought has raised almond prices, as almonds are a thirsty crop, and this fall Rodin jumped prices from $6 for each 10-ounce tub (discounted 4 for $20) to $7 each (discounted 3 for $20). The math major in me wants to tell them that it makes no sense to increase prices by 17% for single purchases and 33% for quantity purchases.

But instead I’m trying to make some on my own. California is almond central – 82% of the world’s almonds are grown here – so finding high quality raw almonds is not a problem.

My savory crave is Rodin’s spicy-tart chile con limon – tongue tingling, with an addictive tang. They blow away any others I’ve tried (the ones at Trader Joe’s don’t compare). But I’ve repeatedly failed to replicate that thin, spicy-salty-sour coating at home.

My sweet crave is the honey roasted flavor, simply dusted with the perfect mix of sugar and salt. It’s the kettle corn of almonds, and making it at home is almost as easy as real kettle corn. read on…

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christmas countdown

Holiday gift ideas 2014

5 December 2014

Eleven months of the year, I’m grateful for my large family. But when I’m trying to outrun the December avalanche, I can’t help but wonder how I thought four kids was such a fantastic idea, or why I didn’t marry a nice orphan.

Daily life is busy enough, but when you pile on the tree, the decorations, the lights, the music, the cookies, the cards, the blasted elf that hides every night – plus gifts for kids, family, friends, teachers, etc – well, all I can say is that the lyric “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” in reference to holiday season was most assuredly not penned by a mom.

Gifts are stressful, because there’s not much of a spectrum between Jackpot and Total Waste of Money. When you cook, even if people don’t love the food, you’ve at least provided them nourishment and comfort from hunger. But many well-intended gifts go unused, tokens of kindness but a waste of money and effort.

At the very least, I hope to give someone an item they will use. But the best is to fill a void they never even knew was there. Some personal passions are well-advertised (eg running, or the color purple); but gifts that speak to the small and specific ones (eg banana cream pie, or Benedict Cumberbatch) often delight people the most, because they’re surprised you even noticed.

So I over-research. And then I share here to make me feel better about all the time I spent. My kids are moving out of the toy-intensive years, so Christmas gifts are getting smaller (thankfully), and more interest-specific. But I’ll recap some of my enduring favorites here and add some new ones: read on…

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Back in 1999, when brussels sprouts were far from cool, San Francisco chef Gordon Drysdale put on the menu of his new restaurant a salad made of brussels sprouts leaves, briefly sauteed in olive oil and tossed with bacon, caramelized onions, hard-boiled egg and a red wine vinaigrette – and immediately obliterated the childhood memories of boiled brussels sprouts for legions of instant converts.

The brussels sprouts-bacon combo is everywhere these days, but at least in the Bay Area we need to credit Drysdale for spreading the good word back when Brooklyn was still industrial urban jungle and kale was merely perky decor at tired salad bars. His original restaurant, Gordon’s House of Fine Eats, opened during the bubbly internet days and closed after the crash. But Drysdale resurrected the salad at Pizza Antica, where it still endures even though he has moved on.

The salad in its original form makes for great restaurant eating, warm and crisp. But at home you’d never sit and pluck every leaf off every brussels sprout (though my crazy-energetic friend Lisa has done this). And if you don’t eat it right away, the individual leaves become a soggy wilted pile.

For home cooks, roasting is the way to go. Brussels sprouts get browned and crisp outside, soft and creamy inside. And you can make a whole bunch at once, with virtually no effort. Rustle up some shallots and bacon (throw it in the same oven!), and all that’s left is to toss it all together. read on…

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apple pie crumb topping

Apple pie with crumb topping

13 November 2014

I only make pies when I have to, because pies are bad for my self-esteem. In Ohio I never had to make pies, because there are amazing pies in the heartland. But California is not pie country. I don’t know what it is – fear of lard? – but to get a good pie for Thanksgiving, I have to make it myself.

This recipe maximizes what I can make reliably – a filling of soft apples spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, plus a buttery crumble topping – and minimizes what I can’t: pie crust. So I buy a good-quality pie crust (Trader Joe’s has a good one), and the rest is pretty much foolproof.

If you’ve been too scared to tackle pie, this is pie for dummies, by dummies. Believe me, if I can make a good pie, you can make one better.

The mechanics of pie crust aren’t hard – flour, butter/shortening (lard if you’re old school), a bit of salt and water. My problem is personality – heavy handed and impatient, I overwork the dough and get something inedibly tough instead of invitingly tender. I can take out my aggressions on bread, but pastry wants a light touch that I just don’t have.

Crust aside, the only trick to apple pie is what kind of apples to use. A mix of apples adds a nice variation in flavor and texture. But if I’m only buying one type of apple, I try to find firm Golden Delicious (not the mealy ones!), which at its best is sweet with great flavor. There are also many Golden Delicious cultivars on the market now, such as Gala, Jonagold, Pink Lady and Mutsu, which are also good options.

But apple types vary regionally, so ask around at the market for advice. My chef friend Heidi just conducted a fantastic apples-for-pies comparison and found that in general, tart apples break down when cooked, while sweet apples stay firm. read on…

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herbs feta popcorn

Mediterranean popcorn

4 November 2014

Enough with the sugar already. After Halloween, what I need is some salt.

Popcorn does a neat trick of being frivolous enough to be fun while also being real-food enough that you don’t hate yourself afterward. I used you guys as an excuse to make more popcorn than six of us could eat yesterday (“It’s research! For the people!”) and soothed my salt cravings with handfuls of popcorn tossed with oregano, basil, feta, garlic, red pepper and fresh rosemary from my yard.

After all that and a couple of apples, I recovered enough to eat just one more of the kids’ cast-off Snickers bars. read on…

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Macho salad

24 October 2014 Chicken/poultry
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I love this hefty-not-heavy salad, featured in a number of Hillstone restaurants, in spite of its goofball name. I’m not sure what makes it macho – lots of dates; very corny? And shouldn’t a macho salad be beefy, not chicken? But name aside, it’s the mix of flavors and textures – greens, chicken, chopped dates, […]

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Outdoor school

20 October 2014 Brain food
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I realize school can’t be fresh and different every day – goodness knows work and home aren’t either. But every once in a while the kids get a golden day – a break from routine to do something exceptional – and it reminds them how fun learning can be and recharges them for the regular […]

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Fresh strawberry cake

10 October 2014 Food
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When she asked for strawberry cake with strawberry frosting, I didn’t even try to convince my kindergartener to consider pumpkin cake for her fall birthday. It’s been unseasonably hot here in California, there are still plenty of local strawberries at the markets, and strawberry cake is pink. You don’t have to be missing your front […]

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Kopanisti (whipped feta and mint spread)

3 October 2014 Food
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If I made a pie chart of the food groups in my diet, feta would have its own wedge. I use it in everything but never thought to whip it up into a spread – and who knew that with a little bit of olive oil, the crumbly cheese would whirl up into a creamy, […]

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