filling the empty nest with food

Dinosaur Caramel Corn

Well, not real dinosaurs. Just me here feeling like one. It’s one thing to marvel at how someone else’s past is so far removed from present realities (as was my grandmother’s youth in the roaring 1920s), but my age becomes real when it’s my actual past that includes something no-one does anymore. And hardly seems possible that anyone ever considered doing–at least in the past century.

When I was a kid, we used to make popcorn balls to hang on our Christmas tree. Gooey, sticky caramel popcorn that we shaped into balls, usually forgetting to tuck the ribbon into the popcorn before it hardened. That came after stringing popcorn and cranberry garlands. And that was after we had made popcorn balls to hand out to trick-or-treaters at Halloween.

IMG_1895That’s where the dinosaur feeling comes in. Who even makes homemade treats to give out at Halloween anymore?! I guess that was before the razor blade scare, which seems so many lifetimes ago.

But, I was feeling nostalgic for caramel corn and popcorn balls the other day. So, I got out my Betty Crocker cookbook from 1972 and found a familiar recipe.

It turned out not to be all that difficult or time-consuming to make, and is quite delicious. As you will be able to predict from the prodigious amount of butter in the recipe! I highly recommend a batch to accompany your next movie night–or when you want to show your kids what life was like back in the days when Mom was young and dinosaurs roamed the earth. I don’t, however, miss stringing those garlands, which involved more needle sticks to the finger than I could count. Those can definitely become extinct!

Nutty Caramel Corn (from 1972 edition of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook)

8 cups popped popcorn (1/2 cup unpopped)
*You can easily double the amount of popcorn and still have plenty of caramel to coat.
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter
1 cup pecan halves
1/2 cup blanched almonds

Butter a 15 1/2″ x 12 ” baking sheet (or two if making 16 cups popcorn)

Measure popped corn and nuts into a very large bowl. Mix together.

Combine sugars, corn syrup, water, vinegar, and salt in a 2-quart saucepan. Heat to boiling over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Cook, stirring occasionally, to 260 degrees on a candy thermometer (or until small amount of mixture dropped into very cold water forms a hard ball).

Reduce heat to low; stir in butter until melted. Pour syrup in a thin stream over popcorn/nut mixture, stirring until popcorn and nuts are well coated.

Spread mixture on baking sheet. Cool. Break into pieces.

Liking Brussels Sprouts

I haven’t quite decided if eating brussels sprouts is enjoyable or merely tolerable. Do they actually taste good, or am I trying to like them because I think I should like them? Are they an acquired taste enjoyed by adults with sophisticated palates? Or was the child in me right when she rejected them for their overly strong cabbage-y flavor? For me, the jury is still out. Which probably indicates I’m trying to argue myself into liking them.


I grew my own brussels sprouts this summer, which means I will make myself eat them and try really hard to like them. Fortunately, there are glazed brussels sprouts, where butter and sugar come to the rescue to impart a little buttery-sweet coating that raises them above their merely tolerable state.

Here is an old recipe from Cook’s Illustrated from the mid-1990s. (The recipe normally includes chestnuts, but I wanted to eat my brussels sprouts all by their lonesome–considering with each bite, do I love you, do I love you not?)

Glazed Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts  (from Cook’s Illustrated The New Best Recipe)

1 pound small Brussels sprouts, stem end trimmed with a knife and discolored leaves removed by hand
1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sugar
1 16-ounce can peeled chestnuts in water, drained (about 1 1/2 cups)
Salt and ground black pepper

Bring the sprouts, 1/2 c water, and salt to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Cover and simmer (shaking the pan once or twice to redistribute the sprouts) until a knife tip inserted into the center of a sprout meets no resistance, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter and the sugar in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves. Stir in the chestnuts. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chestnuts are glazed, about 3 minutes.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and the sprouts and cook, stirring occasionally, to heat through, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.





Wine and Cheese, Red and Blue

Back years ago, before I was born, my great-grandmother used to get the blues. She’d sit in a dark room in her flowered house dress, sigh about feeling “so blue,” sing sad Irish ballads in her slow and easy off-key voice, and have herself a can of beer.

Though we would now call her feelings depression, I wonder if she would see our Prozac and psychotherapies as improvements over sad songs and a good taste in your mouth. When you’re needing to lighten a heavy heart, she might say that medications only postpone the low feelings to a future time, and therapy is more work than the comfort your melancholy is searching for.

I know it is currently unpopular to use food as a treatment for life’s tribulations. But when you’re looking for pleasure, what better way to find it than by putting something in your mouth that compels you to exclaim, “Oh, that’s so good!” And if the pleasure is only fleeting? Well, what treatment for emotional distress isn’t temporary? Plus, we get to eat three times a day; three opportunities each day to find some joy.


When I feel blue, cans of beer and Irish ballads don’t soothe my low spirits, but a glass of complex and silky red wine accompanied by a slice of salty-sharp blue cheese or oozy camembert most certainly do. They taste so rich and delicious my world turns instantly brighter and right side up in short order.

What’s your go-to food cure for the blues?


French Potato Salad – plus a little masochism

IMG_1034I have a couple of favorite recipes where it’s required that you hurt yourself to complete the recipe successfully and deliciously. Really.

In the French version of potato salad, you carefully fold oil and vinegar into extremely hot potatoes so the potatoes absorb the vinaigrette into their very pores and become one with each other. It’s a sublime potato salad unlike any combination of  dressing and spuds I’ve ever tasted.

Yes, you can use a spoon for the stirring, so that’s not where the masochism comes in.

First, you boil potatoes with the skins on until they’re slightly tender (I think that would be the French version of al dente.). Next remove the potatoes from the pan, peel them immediately and slice them carefully. If any of you have done this, you understand how blazing hot just-boiled potatoes are! How long it can take to peel and slice one potato that’s burning your hands. And how sensitive to heat your fingers are!

Is the pain necessary? Or possibly only an old tradition you do because it’s always been done that way? I’m not sure, although I happen to believe the burned fingers are worth it. It’s a heavenly salad, especially when made with new potatoes and your oil is extra virgin olive oil. Be sure to get the children out of the house so they don’t hear you swearing as you peel and slice. They’ll thank you later.

Potato Salad (from Gourmet’s Basic French Cookbook, 1961)

Boil 5 or 6 medium potatoes, unpeeled, in salted water to cover until they are tender. Drain, peel, and cut them into thin slices. While the potatoes are still hot, season them with 1 teaspoon salt and a little pepper and sprinkle them with 2 or 3 tablespoons vinegar and 6 to 7 tablespoons olive oil. Add 4 tablespoons [chicken] stock or hot water and chopped parsley, chives, chervil, and tarragon to taste. Chopped spring onions may also be added. Let the salad stand at room temperature until most of the liquid is absorbed. Serve it without chilling.

Bon appétit!

Homemade Saltines

I was talking with a friend the other day about our nostalgia over saltines. What with all the gluten-free craziness these days, I don’t eat them much anymore. Even though I love their light, crunchy saltiness. We reminisced about how we ate saltines when we were kids–my family ate them more or less traditionally, floating them in tomato soup or slathered with peanut butter, while her family spread them with butter and competed to see who could make the tallest stack of buttered crackers.

I figured it must be possible to make them at home. I would like to be able to tell you that I scoured the internet for possible recipes, that I tried them all and have presented you with the best one. Well, I did scour the internet and read a lot of reviews, but I’m a bit too lazy to test multiple recipes. Sorry, friends. I made the recipe that looked like it might taste delicious and be a pretty good stand-in for a saltine. And it is.

In a loop around to my childhood, the recipe is actually pretty close to baking powder biscuit dough (which my mother whipped up whenever we ran out of bread)–just rolled very, very thin. They don’t actually taste quite like saltines–but they are a good, solid cracker you can make at home, serve with soup, with a knife-ful of peanut butter or build into a tall stack of cracker layers.  Enjoy!


Homemade Saltines (adapted from

2 cups flour
1/3 cup shortening
2/3 cup milk
1 tsp baking powder

Mix flour and baking powder; cut in shortening with a pastry blender. Stir in milk just until combined. Form a ball with the dough and divide into 4 sections. Roll 1 section out very thin (about 1/8 to 3/16-inches) — making sure it is rolled out EVENLY — and cut with a cookie cutter (you can use all shapes!) or a pastry wheel with the crinkled edges, and repeat with other sections. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet & prick the dough with a fork several times and sprinkle with salt. Bake at 375 for 12-20 minutes until golden brown, but be careful not to burn!


No Processed Foods

As I was looking down the road this past fall at becoming an empty nester (again!), I decided it would be a good time to stop buying processed food. Now that the big appetites in my family have moved out, it seems like the right time. But, boy is this turning out to be a challenge and a commitment–especially as I’m saying it out loud to you all. But I’ve been inching towards it for a long time. For sure, this means I won’t buy a loaf of bread or a box of crackers or jar of peanut butter or a bag of tortilla chips to go with my sister-in-law’s phenomenal salsa. (More on that below.) Or even a container of my favorite mint chocolate chip ice cream. Yikes!

First, though, I have to determine what “processed” food is. I love definitions, and the definitions of the term processed food usually refer to food that comes in boxes, cans, or bags, or food that has additives, or food not found in nature. One food blogger I read defined it as any food with more than 5 ingredients, another as food without a label on it.

Will I have to go out and butcher my own chickens or only buy food that has one ingredient in it? Like tomatoes or apples or basil or flour–oops, that’s been processed and prepared by the miller. The more I think about what “processed” food means, the more I thought I’d have to go back to the stone age to fulfill my goal. Except didn’t the cave men and women “process” that mastodon meat they ate?

You’ve got to define the concept somehow, but for now I’ve decided I’m not ready to make rules or define in a way that requires a philosophy degree to identify a processed food. If my internal food conscience tells me it’s processed, I’ll pass. Believe me, it knows!

How about you? What’s your view of processed food? And how do you define it? And how do you live without tortilla chips?

In the meantime, try out my sister-in-law Jessica’s salsa. She makes it the best, but even when I copy her recipe, it’s much better than most salsas I’ve tasted.  IMG_1562

Jessica’s Salsa
1 or 2 roasted jalapeño peppers (keep the blackened, roasted skin on; scrape out the seeds for those of us with Midwestern palates)
1/2 yellow onion
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
Cilantro (to taste, or optional)
1 teaspoon salt
Lime juice

Put all ingredients except tomatoes in a food processor and process (The irony of this just hit me!) until cut very fine. Add tomatoes and pulse until salsa is nearly pureed. (This is not meant to be a chunky salsa.) Squeeze in a little lime juice at the end.

Blonde Brownie Chemistry

Have you ever gotten a craving for something, but when you go to all the trouble to bake it, it doesn’t turn out the way your taste buds were envisioning? That happened to me recently with a craving for blonde brownies. I made a pan and was so disappointed to have them turn out to be cakey and a little dry. Just when I was dreaming of a soft, chewy butterscotch bar.

Since that craving wasn’t going to be satisfied until it got the exact kind of brownie it was hoping for, I set out to figure out what had gone wrong. After comparing about 5 different recipes, I learned the secret. It’s simple, but important to keep in mind. The crackly-top-with-chewy-inside brownie had only baking soda as a leavener rather than only baking powder or a combination of baking powder and baking soda. (No, I didn’t make 5 different recipes to find this out. I cheated and read the reviews of recipes that looked likely. You probably know this, but if a recipe’s reviews are consistently positive and, especially if they’re over the top complimentary, the recipe is worth trying. And I don’t mean the reviews that say: This recipe was awesome and I followed it exactly except that I was out of this and substituted that and added a bit more of such-and-such and I didn’t have the right sized pan and my oven was on the fritz, but other than that, this is a great recipe.” What do you even do with a review like that??!!  But, I digress.)


For those of you science-minded cooks, the baking soda’s leavening properties need to mix with acidic ingredients to do their work. For this recipe, that would be brown sugar and chocolate. Baking soda neutralizes the acid and produces tenderness. Just baking powder made the bars rise too much and inhibited browning–which boosts the butterscotch-y flavor. While adding both baking powder and baking soda produced a cake-like texture. If your chemistry curiosity just lit up, check out this article in the Huffington Post. It really does matter which leavener you use.  

Otherwise, skip the chemistry lesson, bake the brownies below, and enjoy!IMG_1350

Blonde Brownies (adapted from Rhonda O’s recipe on
2/3 cup butter, melted
2 cups brown sugar (packed)
2 large eggs
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt (optional)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°F.
Melt butter in a saucepan on top of the stove. Take pan off the heat. Add brown sugar and stir to combine. Let cool slightly. Add eggs and stir thoroughly. Sift together flour, baking soda, and salt. Add to butter/sugar/egg batter. Add vanilla, then nuts if using. Spread batter into a greased 13 x 9 pan. Sprinkle chocolate chips on top of batter. Bake at 350° for 25 – 30 minutes. Bars will be soft to the touch and barely done in the middle. That’s how they should look and will then stay soft and chewy once they cool.

If you have a reasonably-minded appetite, you can halve this recipe and bake it for about 20 minutes in an 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 pan.

Croissants Chez Moi

I’ve never really considered myself the scientific type in the kitchen. I don’t take notes when something doesn’t turn out right. I rarely make something twice unless it succeeded the first time. And I haven’t considered my cooking as experiments to tinker with and improve. But something just changed.

I took a croissant-making class a couple of weeks ago and I’ve become obsessed with making a croissant worthy of a French bakery. I’ve made two batches so far. The first was a big disaster (no photos allowed!) and the second batch (below) not too shabby. Disaster is a relative term in the croissant-baking business, as any dough that involves incorporating nearly a pound of butter will knock your socks off no matter how much you screw up the process. Trust me. You will want to eat your mistakes.

Making croissants requires precision and attention to detail. To make a long, two-day job into a short description: you make some bread dough (from a mathematical formula rather than a recipe), let it rise, then refrigerate, roll it out to a precise width and length, place a large square of butter (mixed, refrigerated, molded, refrigerated again, shaped), also a precise width and length to match the rectangle of dough, fold it, refrigerate, roll out again, fold it again, refrigerate, roll out, fold, refrigerate, and roll out one last time. Then you’re ready to cut and shape the croissants. Let them rise again, and bake.

At this point, some bakers will tell you how easy and doable it is to make croissants at home. Don’t let them snow you. These are not easy, not simple, and not for the faint of heart.

But, wow, are they crispy, buttery, flaky, rich, and downright heavenly when you get them right! I wouldn’t let my French friends try them yet, but some day soon . . .


Eating Oranges at the Kitchen Sink

Now that the holidays are well past and my children have flown the coop again, empty nesting has set in once more and I’m getting back in the groove of having no children at home. (Although, yes, I still miss you!) And I’m realizing why so many food blogs are written by younger women with small children at home. They certainly can’t have more free time than I do, but they have so many more opportunities and need for cooking and baking.

I have very few these day and I now understand why my grandmother used to eat some of her meals standing up at the kitchen sink. For which she was always reprimanded whenever she got caught.

But, why not? After all those years and decades of cooking dinners, setting tables, clearing tables, washing dishes, putting away leftovers, scrubbing off the stove top, and sweeping the kitchen floor, I can see the attraction of, say, eating an orange over the kitchen sink: the peel can go right down the garbage disposal, the drips of juice into the sink, a trickle of water from the faucet rinses away the stickiness from fingers and chin, and no plate to wash. Just the pleasure of a ripe, sloppy-juicy orange. It’s a liberating pleasure for those of us with scores of nightly dining-room-table family dinners of place settings and cloth napkins behind us.

This recipe for Moroccan Oranges is almost as simple and delicious, yet with a bit more class. In a pinch, you can skip the slicing, ditch the plate and still enjoy a mouth-watering dessert eaten at the sink. I won’t scold you!


Moroccan Orange Dessert (from

  • 3-4 oranges
  • 1/4 cup orange flower water (Note: When I’m in a hurry or not wanting to spend time in the kitchen, I skip this part)
  • 1-2 Tbsp powdered sugar
  • 1-2 teaspoons cinnamon

Slice the top and bottom off each orange. Slice off the rind and all the pith and then cut the orange into 1/4 inch rounds. Sprinkle a little orange flower water in the bottom of a wide-bottomed glass or plastic container and lay the orange slices on top. If you need to do more than one layer of oranges to get them all in the container, sprinkle more orange flower water over each orange layer as you go. Add any remaining orange flower water, cover the container and set aside at room temperature for 1 hour.

To serve, take the oranges out of the container and arrange on a plate. Add a little of the liquid from the container. Just as you serve, sprinkle some powdered sugar and cinnamon over the oranges.

Gingerbread Professionalism

I know Christmas is over and it’s supposed to be time to move quickly on to the next holiday. But I’m still contemplating Christmas and its experiences and meanings–and still eating Christmas sweets!

Making homemade sweets to share with those outside your immediate family has gotten awfully intimidating these days, what with so many professional-looking food photos around. Since we tend to judge things by their appearance, beautifully presented Christmas treats can seem so much more appetizing than homely ones.

Not being all that gifted in the artistic, design-oriented skills, I keep my fingers crossed that the deliciousness of my Christmas goodies will rise above the homeliness of their looks. IMG_1263

When my two older boys were young, I used to take them grocery shopping with me. At the end of the last aisle in the store was the cake-decorating station. We stopped there every week to watch the cake decorator create his magic, piping stars and roses faster than you could blink your eyes. We were transfixed by his speed. And so impressed at how every cake turned out perfectly. Needless to say, after spending so much time watching him, we got to chatting with him and became Friday afternoon friends. One Christmas, I thought he might like some of the gingerbread people my boys and I had made and decorated that year. He seemed to accept them graciously, but a couple of years later laughed about how ugly they had been.

I was stung–realizing for the first time that not all homemade treats are appreciated. That experience has not stopped us from our annual marathon of Christmas-cookie baking, outlandish gingerbread creations, or from giving them as gifts.  We just do it with a little thicker skin.

IMG_1271Appearance has never been my forte, but it won’t stop me from baking.  And I hope it won’t intimidate you, either.



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