Cheesecake Stuffed Strawberries

Memba These?  They were featured on our Summer Solstice Party Menu.  Thought this recipe might come  in handy for your Labor Day picnics! You’ll be the new favorite party goer or thrower!

Cheesecake Stuffed Strawberries


-1 lb of LARGE strawberries
-8 oz. cream cheese, softened (can use 1/3 less fat)
-3-4 tbsp powdered sugar (4 tbsp for a sweeter filling)
-1 tsp vanilla extract
-graham cracker crumbs


1. Rinse strawberries and cut around the top of the strawberry. Remove the top and clean out with a paring knife, if necessary (some may already be hollow inside). Prep all strawberries and set aside.
2. In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese, powdered sugar, and vanilla until creamy. Add cream cheese mix to a piping bag or ziploc with the corner snipped off.
3. Fill strawberries with cheesecake mixture. Once strawberries are filled, dip the top in graham cracker crumbs. If not serving immediately, refrigerate until serving.

The Party’s ON NOW!!!

The EY Summer Solstice Party is in full swing

Tonight’s drink of choice:  Lemonade with Berry Ice Cubes   – Vodka or Tequilla Optional of course!


The table’s are set up inside and out.



Cheesecake stuffed strawberries are almost too pretty to eat…almost!

Everyone’s dressed for the occasion…








Blue Skies

And the weather has cooperated ~ a perfect 72 with sun & clouds – cool and comfortable. 

photo-111Sunset ~ 9:30 pm


And then – a full moon 

Full Moon







The DJ –  one awesome dude – put together a playlist that hit all the right notes.


One awesome dude’s party mix-a-roo

There’s only one way to cap off this amazing evening


 So glad you could join us!  


Summer Solstice Party Recipes

Strawberry Spinach Salad
Ingredients (Salad):
-Baby Spinach
-Bacon (crumbled)
-Vidalia Onion (diced)

Dressing (Strawberry Vinaigrette):
-4 tsp. strawberry jam
-2 T balsamic vinegar
-1/3 C olive oil
-pinch of salt
-pinch of pepper

For Dressing:
1. Combine ingredients into a blender or food processor.
2. Blend well. Pour over strawberry spinach salad with ingredients portioned to your liking.

Barbecue Short Ribs
-4 pounds beef short ribs
-1 tsp salt
-1 tsp pepper
-2/3 C brown sugar
-1 tsp paprika
-1 clove garlic
-1 T white vinegar
-1/2 tsp dried thyme
-2/3 C ketchup
-1 T yellow mustard
-1 T Worcestershire sauce

-Garlic press
-Medium bowl
-Large baking dish
-Aluminum foil

1. Preheat oven to 300.
2. Arrange short ribs in a baking dish and season with salt and pepper. Combine remaining ingredients in a bowl and stir with spatula to combine.
3. Pour the sauce over the ribs and toss well to coat.
4. Cover dish with aluminum foil and roast until cooked through (abut 3 hours). Remove foil for the last 30 minutes of cooking.

Grilled Peaches
-2 large peaches
-1 bottle apple cider
-12 sprigs fresh rosemary, for garnish

-Pastry brush
-Chef’s knife

1. Heat grill to medium high heat.
2. Slice peaches into 12 wedges
3. Brush each side of each peach slice with cider and place them on the hot grill. Sear for 20-30 seconds on each side. The goal is not to cook the peach, but to imprint grill marks and caramelize the cider on the peach surface.
4. Garnish with rosemary sprigs.

Cauliflower Mashed Potatoes

-1 head of cauliflower
-1 T cream cheese
-1/4 C grated parmesan
-1 clove garlic
-1/2 tsp salt
-pinch of pepper
-3 T unsalted butter
-dry chives (for garnish)

-Large pot
-Chef’s knife
-Paper towels
-Food Processor

1. Boil a pot of water over high heat
2. Clean and cut cauliflower into small pieces and cook in boiling water for approximately 6 minutes or until well done.
3. Drain cauliflower and dry between layers of paper towels.
4. Puree cauliflower in a food processor (or blender, or with an immersion blender in a bowl).
5. Add cream cheese, parmesan, garlic, salt, and pepper. Blend until smooth.
6. Garnish with chives and butter.

Cheesecake Stuffed Strawberries


-1 lb large strawberries
-8 oz. cream cheese, softened (can use 1/3 less fat)
-3-4 tbsp powdered sugar (4 tbsp for a sweeter filling)
-1 tsp vanilla extract
-graham cracker crumbs


1. Rinse strawberries and cut around the top of the strawberry. Remove the top and clean out with a paring knife, if necessary (some may already be hollow inside). Prep all strawberries and set aside.
2. In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese, powdered sugar, and vanilla until creamy. Add cream cheese mix to a piping bag or ziploc with the corner snipped off.
3. Fill strawberries with cheesecake mixture. Once strawberries are filled, dip the top in graham cracker crumbs. If not serving immediately, refrigerate until serving.


Throwin’ Down Again!


There are party goers and party throwers.  There are amazing stars that shine at both… and of course – the duds who’d best just stick to dinner and a movie.

So – what’s the measure of success?  Undoubtedly it’s how much fun was had by all.

When we launched, we were inspired by Robin – a consummate party thrower.  She loves throwing parties, but even more, Robin loves  planning parties.  Before she has completed one party, she already has 3 or 4 more under construction.  Themes and events stream through her brain at rapid speed and inspiration is found everywhere.  Her success rate is amazing and everyone lines up for an invitation.

Since then, has attracted a host of other amazing Hosts.  This month, two of our interns Rebecca Ferlotti and Kerry Butler are celebrating the last days of summer by planning a little fete of their own – a Summer Solstice Party – and they’re documenting their plans and preparations along the way, (check out our facebook page).

In essence,  you get to join EY in this celebration of summer that we’re told will include everything from bright colors and festive decorations, to lively music and delicious treats and beverages.  More importantly, you’ll get all the advice you’ll need to throw your own awesome soiree!   Want to join in the fun?  Feel free to share your own ideas and recipes here, on twitter or on our fb page!

Come On – Let’s get this party STARTED!!!


ps – If you think you might be one of the duds – stick with us!  We’ve got all the advice and insights you’ll need to become a Party Legend!


Beet Week Day 3 – Happy Hour


We first discovered this margarita at Light Bistro  in the trendy Ohio City  in Cleveland, Ohio.  There were two of us – one a beet lover and one – well – not so much.  The consensus?  DELICIOUS!  Sweet and Tangy and smooth as could be.  This could be a game changer for folks who’ve always hated beets.

Beet Margarita Recipe

1.5 oz Tequilla (they used Jose Cuervo – but we love Leyenda del Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Silver)

.5 oz Triple Sec

1 oz Roses Lime Juice

.5 oz Lemon Juice (increase/decrease lime and lemon juice to taste)

.5 oz Roasted Beet Puree (see recipe below)

Mix ingredients in a shaker with ice and pour directly into a martini glass.

Note:  Other recipes call for orange juice, cilantro syrup, muddled oranges and agave nectar.  Some use a salted rim and some a sugared rim.  Some serve the margarita in a traditional glass over ice.   Be brave – be bold – be beetiful!

Roasted Beet Puree

Preaheat oven to 400 degrees

Using Fresh Beets:

Remove greens (cut them off close to the beet)

Wash beets to remove any loose dirt

Wrap each beet in foil and place in 400 degree oven

Cook beets for 45 minutes

Remove the foil wrapped beets and let them cool to the touch by running them under cold water.  Skin should peel off easily.

Discard skins and use a food processor or blender to puree the beets (as smooth as you can get them).

If you are adverse to beets, be sure to use cheese cloth or a chinois strainer to drain juice and avoid beet particles in your cocktail.  If you’re a beet lover, you might enjoy the little bit of thickness from the puree, especially if you are pouring your margarita over ice.

Follow recipe above and mix, pour and drink.  BEETlicious!




Martin Examines Hops

Foraging For Hops

Sadly, I’m not a big beer drinker.  And I say sadly, because I seem to be surrounded by people who really know and love their beer.  My sister’s fiancé, Joel, is a brewer at the one and only Great Lakes Brewing Company, and my good friend, co-filmmaker, and current roommate, Alex, is experienced in the art of home brewing- he even took an online course.  So between them it is as if I’ve been adopted into beer culture.

For the most part this has worked out well enough. They’ve been able to get past my comments such as “I think my favorite beer is Coors Ice- Coors Light poured over a big glass of ice,” and I’ve been able to ignore their Indiana Jones like reactions in beer shops to a rare “one of a kind” find.  But this weekend a connection was made – I have now become a beer “forager.”

It all started a few years ago- Alex had discovered wild hops growing near Colorado Springs.  He had seen it for a few years and after many smell tests found when it would be most ripe for harvest.  It just happened to coincide with this past Saturday, so Alex, Maddy (Alex’s girlfriend), Dan (another beer advocate) and I hopped into the car.

We arrived at a familiar running spot, and started hiking up the road keeping our eyes peeled for what I perceived to be these “illusive” hops.  On the way, I found my eyes (and mind) wandering away from the task at hand, to the crags and rock walls along the path, wondering which I could climb.  I pointed an especially nasty looking one out to Dan, (an experienced climber) wondering if I’d be able to attempt the route while being securely roped up.  Reading my mind he declared: “That’s about the limit of what I’d do without a rope!”  Instantly I was in disbelief and awe for it was 100 feet of near vertical and overhanging rock. We continued on, me pondering Dan’s skill level and the rest of the group searching for the still undiscovered hops.

The trip was not without treasures. We did stumble upon a rare squirrel that looked like a cross between a bunny and the devil.  We photographed the demon and moved on.

Throughout the search, I was completely ignorant to what hops looked like and imagined us gathering long stalks of brown wispy wheat-like plants.   Our prospects weren’t looking too good until finally Alex spotted the “elusive” hop.

I could not have been more surprised.  Rather than brown, tall and thin, it grows as a vine and has little buds ranging from ½ to 1 inch long.  We smelled them and were mildly impressed but moved on to see if there were more.

BOOM- we found the bumper crop.  A small pine tree was covered in them.

This bunch smelled different and we all went back and forth, on which we liked more.  In the end we gathered half a plastic bag full of both varieties and headed to the home brew store.



And despite the excitement of our find, I was still pondering Dan’s declaration about the rock climb, so before we reached the car I convinced Dan to try and “free solo” (climb unroped) his peak, except that I was horrified when he actually took up my challenge and started up.  I thought my stupid dare was about to lead to the witness of my friend falling onto the sharp rocks below.  Luckily, fear or reality got the better of him and he decided ascending in sandals sans rope was not the best plan.

The adventure continued as we drove way out east of the mountains to the plains.  The homebrew store was a combination of a warehouse and bar.  Across the street was a strip club.  We entered the store and Alex and Dan rummaged around, selecting their special ingredients (malted barley extract, yeast) and tools (tubing, buckets). Alex and Dan already had much of the gear but after two batches of last year’s brew had resulted in explosions, Alex wanted new tubing to prevent another round of infection, which he speculated might have been caused by wild yeast entering the beer.

The owner rung us up and delighted in informing us that tax was only 4.7% – we were out of the city now where tax was 9.8%!

“Gotta love being right on the border” he joked.  “But the winter was a drag, snow plow didn’t even plow the street.”

“But you gotta love that tax,” I told him, “hell, I bet you’ll put the plow on your truck and make your own path.”

He gave a hearty laugh, it appeared I hit the nail on the head.  (I wondered if he had a deal with the strip club guy).

Fast-forward to the next day and our cottage was transformed into what could easily be mistaken for a meth lab.  Tubes, and buckets everywhere with a big vat of wort (beer before it has fermented) on the stove.


The smell was… interesting, but it grew on me and over all the hops smelled great.

Alex and Maddy did most of the actual brewing, while I hung around on the sidelines, watching in wonder.  Now, after all the excitement and activity, for once I can honestly say that I’ve never been so excited to crack open a beer.  I’ll let you know how it goes in 4 weeks!



Megan with Latte

The Perfect Temperature or: Cravings in a Foreign Land

When living in another country, there’s something about food that starts to get to me. I’ve always been one of those unfortunate people who gets cravings for certain foods, like appetite itches that have to be scratched. Once they are, I’m satiated and can move on to the next thing.  I’m ashamed to admit that on more than one occasion I’ve gone to get a burrito or a Dairy Queen Blizzard, ignoring a refrigerator full of post-holiday leftovers and spending Christmas money I should have saved, because I had to have it. I’ve ordered the same thing at restaurants over and over again just to make sure I don’t “waste a time” going there by trying something new—and risk not satisfying my hankering for fettuccine alfredo, say, or black bean soup. I make for an overall boring dining companion, I imagine, but I am a slave to my cravings, and it’s something I’ve attempted to come to terms with as I’ve grown up.

So, when I moved to China last fall to start a teaching contract at a college in Changzhou, a city outside Shanghai, I was excited to try all sorts of new foods, but also a bit wary. Not only am I a craving-driven eater, I’m also a fairly picky eater, especially when it comes to textures. Things can be too dry, too grainy, too crumbly, too gooey, too whatever, and I’m done—the dish is wrecked. I haven’t met too many people who seem to care about the texture of food as much as I do, so it’s with some reservation that I admit this next part. The food in China, when I first arrived here, was so overwhelmingly wet, so mushy and oozy, compared to what I was used to back in the U.S., that I found it very difficult finding things to eat. I longed for something more “edible,” under my own terms, like a taco or a piece of pizza or a fresh salad.

The cravings multiplied as the weeks went by. My initial pull for Mexican food and pizza was paired with an overpowering need for cereal—any cereal!— and cake—any cake!—divided by an incessant desire for brownies, chocolate bars, chocolate malts, chocolate chocolate chocolate…none of it readily available in Changzhou. I was doomed. I found that food began to consume (pun intended) nearly all my thoughts. I started looking at cooking  websites  online and felt my mouth watering over various dishes that I didn’t have the ingredients to recreate.

Nor the kitchen, for that matter. It’s worth noting that there are no ovens in China, something I wasn’t aware of when I moved here (had I known…well…). The Chinese simply don’t cook with ovens and, as far as I know, never have. All of their food is fried or steamed. In fact, Mandarin Chinese has at least five different words for “to fry” that differentiate between things like the amount of oil you use in the wok and whether or not you’re frying things in sauce. A few gas burners and maybe a microwave is all anyone seems to have in their kitchens here. Oh, and a rice cooker. Always a rice cooker. But never an oven. And therefore no chance for me to satisfy my craving for anything with yeast and sugar in my own apartment.

I knew I had to find other things to eat, beyond fried rice, steamed vegetables and too many containers of yogurt, or suffer the consequences of a crazed food craver. Enter Café 85°C.

Café 85°C is fondly known as “the Starbucks of Taiwan” but I have never seen baked goods like these at any Starbucks I’ve ever wandered into. The place is so named for their self-proclaimed “perfect temperature to serve coffee” (85° Celsius is 185° Fahrenheit, for those Americans in the group who don’t feel like Googling the conversion). The place is one-third coffee shop, and two-thirds bakery. Oh, the bakery.

There are actually many bakeries in China: like cupcake shops in New York, they’re something of a fad here. Low-grade sweetshops peddling Little Debbie-like wares can be found in various places around Changzhou. These bakeries all have cute English names like “Happiness” and “Christine” and “Bread Talk.” The only problem is their baked goods generally taste like greasy Twinkies, hardly worth the calories. Their bread is even worse, dry and ashy, like sawdust was baked into the loaf.  I had all but given up hope on having a delicious baked good here in the Middle Kingdom when my boyfriend and I made our first trip to Shanghai.

We had a week off for China’s National Day in early October, and we’d decided to take the high-speed train from Changzhou into Shanghai, a hair over an hour down the tracks, to explore the city for a few days.

Our first afternoon there, after we’d wandered through the People’s Park in downtown Shanghai for a few hours, we decided we needed an afternoon pick-me-up. I flipped open my guidebook and found a branch of 85°C on the map, only a few blocks from us. I read the description and a few choice words: “inexpensive but high-quality coffee” and, more importantly, “pastries,” caught my eye. Sold! We walked there immediately.

Let’s just start by saying ambiance probably isn’t the place’s strong suit—this isn’t the sort of café to while away an afternoon contemplating Hemingway. While each branch of the café is very clean and brightly lit, with white walls and lightwood throughout, it’s hard to see anything but people and pastries. The place is always packed and noisy, with people hip checking each other out of the way for the latest freshly baked roll.  And these rolls are worth a bit of physical contact. They’re puffy clouds of floury confection bigger than both of your fists, with names like “Mocha Bread” and “French Dark Chocolate Roll.” They’re put out onto shelves in the bakery right from the oven by workers in red-and-white paper hats and vanish into bags before they can fully cool.

In another area are the drinks. There are a number of options, teas, coffee and the like, but you really only need to know one: the Sea Salt Latte. It’s a fairly simple equation: a sweet, creamy latte sprinkled with salt on top. Think a sea salt caramel, but drinkable. Reader, I’m in love, and his name is Sea Salt Latte. They’re unreal.

Near the drinks, and not to be ignored, is a large display case with higher end sweets like tiramisu and cheesecake and something called a dark chocolate cherry bomb. I tend to ogle that gorgeous display case without purchasing anything, as delicious at they look, probably because I’m usually a third of the way through my roll by that point, as I stand in line waiting for my coffee to come up at the window.

But going back to Shanghai and that first trip to 85°C. The details, like which rolls we picked and what exactly we drank, have started to fade a bit. Who can say why the mind decides to remember certain things and not others when one gets that first glimpse of beauty and purity in a world of chaos? I do know we fought our way through the crowds to the rolls and pastries in their cases, pulled two out with a pair of tongs, and eventually made it up to the cash register to pay. I know by the time we found a free table in the crowded cafe, I was feeling pretty fried, and so when I bit into that first pastry, perhaps I didn’t fully realize how much my life had changed. But changed it had.

Suddenly, bread was back in the equation. And sugar. Real, honest-to-goodness sugary treats. Were. Back. My luck was on the rise!

Now, eating at that café (there’s a tiny branch in Changzhou) is like creating cravings I never knew I had. Each time I swing open the door and dive into the crowd, elbowing my way toward my favorite rolls, I feel better. This has been a hard year, living so far from home, and while biting into a mocha roll and sipping a sea salt latte doesn’t make me feel closer to my home in the states, it makes it feel like this place, where I don’t speak the language and don’t know more than a handful of people, could, just maybe, be one version of home for me.

To say I live solely on Café 85°C’s rolls and coffee here in China would be something of an exaggeration. I am now the proud eater of all sorts of Chinese food, and have found many dishes that satisfy both my hunger and my appetite, which (as you may be able to tell by now) can be a tricky combination at times.  But do I go back there more often than I probably should? From this sugar addict to you, dear reader, I’ll admit in my most jittery and buzzed voice, that yes, yes, I do.



Hey, Chickpea

Another dive into my pantry this winter has uncovered my favorite bean: the garbanzo, otherwise known as the chickpea. In Italian, the word for this little member of the pea family is ceci pronounced “che-chi”. “Garbanzo” comes from the Spanish calavance or garvance. Why a simple pea has so many different names is beyond me, but needless to say it’s delicious.

Traveling to Crete this past spring on a high-speed ferry, I sat in a stiff chair with a blazing three-aspirin headache, wondering if I was going to make it to the island before I started feeling like the Cyclops from the Odyssey. Fortunately the ferry arrived to the island in the same time it took the aspirin to do its job. Getting off the boat, I stumbled onto solid land at the Irakclio dock in woozy post-headache relief, just as the sun melted behind a line of dark blue Cretan mountains into a pool of neon pink. 

Walking onto the street with my giant pack, I was greeted by a street vendor who’d stacked bunches of brilliant green stalks atop milk cartons beside his cart. Walking closer, I discovered that the stalks were in fact in the pea family, and that this vendor was selling fresh chick peas on the stem.

I suppose there should be a unique category of euphoria for discovering the tastiness of something fresh and raw that previously you’ve only known as cooked or dried. Imagine only knowing a raisin and then discovering a grape. Or only eating prunes until someone presents you with a plump, ripe plum.

Upon discovering the fresh chickpea, whose flavor has even more depth and richness than an ordinary fresh garden pea, I thought to myself: “why aren’t we eating these all the time?”  The answer being that it’s a lot of work to shell these little guys. After buying a bunch of stalks from the vendor for 1 Euro, I headed to a youth hostel with my friend and traveling companion, Tamara, and the two of us sat on our beds and shelled and ate chick peas for close to an hour. It was like eating candy. The fuzzy pods contained generally one or two chickpeas, and sometimes squeezing them to extract the peas would make them fly out of their pod across the room. The peas were bright green and firm and would’ve been delicious in a rice salad with sun-dried tomatoes and olives. But alas, we were at the mercy of traveling and when we’d found all the peas we could, we looked around at the mess of empty pods and leaves on the beds and realized we were still hungry. Despite their divine sweetness and crunchy texture, a bunch of raw chickpeas doesn’t make a dinner.

But a bunch of dried chickpea does. When you’re not on the island of Crete but rather navigating your way through a cold, snowy winter, chickpeas can either be bought dry by the bag like other beans, or pre-soaked by the can. Buying them by the bag is certainly more economical, but it takes the foresight to soak them overnight.  Still, some things are worth the foresight, and it’s a lot easier than shelling them from the pod.

The versatility of this pea is astounding. Chickpeas can be added to stews or baked on a cookie sheet as a snack or pureed into a spicy soup or combined with tahini to make hummus. Its richness and cooling character make it a wonderful base for herbs and spices, which is why it can be found as an ingredient in a variety of cultural dishes from Italy to India.

One of the most delicious recipes I’ve found for chickpeas is an Italian style salad that makes a great dish to bring to a dinner party or alternatively, makes an easy lunch to bring to work. This recipe is very flexible, so if you want to add other veggies or olives or spices, go for it. The dressing is carefully crafted though, and worth the measurements.  If you have fresh herbs, all the better, but I’ve listed amounts for dried ones since it’s wintertime.

Don’t use dried parsley though if you can help it. Fresh parsley is readily available and makes all the difference. Store it like fresh flowers  in a vase and it will stay fresh for two weeks.  Annie suggests serving this with grilled eggplant and big, flat croutons. Yum!



Chick-pea and Sun-dried Tomato Salad

Adapted from Annie Somerville’s Fields of Greens
Bantam, 2003

 Serves 4-6

 1 1/2 cups dried chickpeas, about 9 oz soaked overnight

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp dried sage

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes

1/2 cup frozen or freeze-dried green peas

1/2 small red onion, diced about 1/2 cup

Champagne vinegar

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 sundried tomatoes packed in oil, drained and diced about 1/4 cup

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Drain and rinse the chickpeas, place in a large saucepan and cover generously with water. Add herbs and bring to a simmer. Cook for 50-60 minutes.

Meanwhile bring a small pot of water to a boil, add the onion, and cook for 15 seconds. Drain and toss with a splash of Champagne or white balsamic vinegar. Combine the red wine vinegar, garlic, 3/4 tsp salt and few pinches of pepper in a bowl. Gradually whisk in the oil.

When the chickpeas are tender, add the green peas and cook for 1-2 minutes more. Drain, then toss immediately with the vinaigrette, onion, and sun-dried tomatoes. Marinate for an hour, toss in the parsley, and serve.


<3 At First Bite


“Just made brownies.” 

This fb post set off a string of comments (not to mention a couple dozen “Likes”)



–On my way over…

–Wish I were there

–Need to make some NOW too!


— <3

So what is it about brownies that make them so evocative?  Let’s start with the smell.   If you’ve ever baked brownies (or been in the kitchen of someone who has) the aroma is unmistakable and almost universally appreciated.  That sweet smell of cocoa lingers in your mind long after the last brownie has been gobbled up.  In fact, the smell is so appealing that in some ways, it surpasses the actual brownies themselves! (in some ways!)

Then there is texture and style.  Brownies can be cakelike or chewy!  They can be loaded with nuts, m&m’s, caramels, marshmallows, coconut, chocolate chips, toffee, butterscotch and/or vanilla morsels, to name a few.  They can be served frosted, double frosted, powdered sugared or straight from the pan.

And they can be dressed up or down, depending on the occasion.

Take Valentine’s Day.  Brownies are a perfect alternative to the traditional box of chocolates.

Why?  Because they are delicious and because presumably, someone went out of their way to make them. 

Ironically, it doesn’t take an expert baker to produce good brownies.  The best advice for novices – buy a box mix!  Pillsbury, Duncan Hines and Betty Crocker haven’t spent decades perfecting their recipes for nothing!   A couple of eggs, half cup of oil, quarter cup of water – good to go.  How easy is that?

Their recipes are so fool proof that even accidentally switching the measurements for oil and water still yielded tasty (not to mention low fat) brownies! (hey – not necessarily recommending it – just sayin’!)

Load them up with goodies; suddenly they become “gourmet.”  Decorate them with colorful candies, like hearts for Valentine’s Day, and voila – instant holiday fare.  Get creative: avant garde artiste.   Few foods offer so much opportunity for this kind of freedom and still come out delicious.

Given the assignment to “bring something to share” to a party or picnic, brownies are a sure winner!  Unlike cookies, they are quick and easy to make – throw them in a pan and bake for half hour and you’re done.  And unlike their close cousin – cake – they are easy to eat. They don’t require silverware, leave many crumbs, or make fingers sticky. Even if several other people show up with brownies in hand, by the end of the night, no one is taking them home.  Plus they don’t spoil, so if by some chance they are left over after sitting out for hours, that’s just a bonus because they only get better with age (at least for the first few days after they’re baked).

That’s not to say  they can’t be served formally.  Decorate them in the pan and throw on a few candles; you’ve got a birthday cake!  Add a scoop of ice cream, a spoonful of hot fudge, caramel and/or chocolate sauce and a dollop of whipped cream, toss on a few slivered almonds and you have now created a gourmet dessert worthy of the finest restaurants.   Talk about versatile!




Discover the Dried Fig

It’s winter. The colors are stark and poetic, but aside from that it’s cold and wet. In Boston, it’s been storm after storm, almost like clockwork. I have become accustomed to my car’s windshield scraper, to bringing that extra pair of shoes, to cracked cuticles and chapped lips and long underwear.

But I’ve also become accustomed to scouring my pantry, as winter is such a wonderful time to cook.  To turn down the thermostat to save on oil costs and turn on the oven as the back-up heating source. What has the pantry uncovered? Figs. Beautiful and versatile, dried figs have seduced me. And not just me – figs are believed to be the first plant ever cultivated by humans.

The best dried figs I ever tasted came from a spice market in Istanbul, Turkey.

An old man with white hair and a tattered blazer was selling them by the box. Unlike the other vendors at the spice market who had stands and/or shops brimming with every sort of spice and dried fruit you could imagine heaped into colorful piles, this man was only selling figs. Maybe illegally. I bought a box of these figs for five Turkish Lira, about three US dollars; it weighed about two pounds and contained the largest most beautiful dried figs I’ve ever laid eyes on. As the day wore on and my friend Samantha and I walked around the buzzing, intricate streets of Istanbul, we snacked on these figs, letting their honey-like stickiness cover our fingers. They had the distinct nutty crunch which comes from the seeds of the fruit, made possible by the special fig wasp who coevolved with the fig over millions of years.

I became so enamored with the figs I even tried to justify going back to the market and buying ten more boxes to ship home. But Sam talked me out of it, fortunately.

Because while these Turkish figs, of the Smyrna variety, were amazing, you can find pretty good figs back home on US soil. California figs are good. Look for a variety called “Calimyrna figs” which is a relative of the Smyrna fig. Calimyrna figs are quite large when fresh, and, if dried properly, retain a lot of flavor.

The flavor of a dried fig, like many dried fruits, is that distinct sweetness, like a brown sugar, and a nuttiness, like that of toasted almonds or pecans. A fresh fig, albeit hard to come by, is alternately slightly citrusy, with the sweetness of a fruity port. Fresh figs are a rare delicacy (at least in my corner of the Northern hemisphere) but dried figs are readily available in the dried fruit sections of most supermarkets. Sometimes they are packaged in a round, pressed together like a pinwheel, or else packaged in a long rectangular box. I usually go with the ones that feel slightly soft to the touch. The ones that get TOO dried out can be reconstituted with a little hot water, but generally aren’t as tasty.

What to do with dried figs?

There are certainly an endless number of ways you can bake with dried figs, chopping them up and putting them in muffins or tea-breads, or mashing them up and mixing them with honey and then making some delicious homemade granola.

But I prefer using dried fruit in savory applications, because I think it’s more interesting. Think bacon wrapped dates or salted caramels or chocolate covered peanuts. Sweet meets salty is one of my favorite flavor combinations. Combining dried figs with cured olives is one way to accomplish this.

On a recent winter night, I recalled a recipe for tapenade my sister-in-law shared with me in Brooklyn. It’s about the least-complicated and most delicious tapenade I’ve ever tasted, and a go-to for an easy appetizer for a dinner or cocktail party.



1 cup pitted kalamata olives

4-5 dried calimyrna figs, stems removed

1/4 cup toasted walnuts*

            a little bit of olive oil

Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend until combined. Add a little olive oil if it seems too thick. Serve with pieces of crusty french bread or crackers. Also delicious as a sandwich spread!

Tips: If the figs feel dry and stiff, put them in a bowl with a little hot water to soften them, then chop them up.

*Best way to toast walnuts is in the toaster oven, but keep an eye on them because they’ll burn easily.

Bonus: Figs are a great source of calcium and fiber.


Fig Leaf Enhancing a Marvelous Turkish View

decorated oreos on red

Dipping Delectable Delights

It all started when we were in Kindergarten.  Our mom wanted us to feel like we were part of the gift giving process, but she didn’t want our teachers to end up with something they had absolutely no interest in.  Someone suggested to her that dipping strawberries was really very easy and the next thing you know, a tradition (a hobby?) had started.

The beauty of dipping strawberries is that it is really the easiest thing in the world, but everyone feels they are receiving something very special.  Of course, it is critical to mention that this is only a universal truth if you use good chocolate and decent strawberries.  We say decent because the chocolate will hide some imperfections.   But if you use bad chocolate or a rotten strawberry, you can be sure that the whole bunch will be tossed in the trash, (this year and in subsequent years), because nobody is going take that risk twice! 

We were told to “only buy Merckens” because it was the best.  Everyone seems to love it and it is easy to use, so we continue to buy it.  There may be other good alternatives – we just don’t know them!

Anyway, that first year, the strawberries were such a big hit with the teachers, we decided to do it again the following Christmas.

By then, since strawberries were in short supply, we had seen some beautiful pretzels in an expensive catalog and we decided to branch out.  During our first foray into the chocolate mess, we discovered that after you dip the strawberry in the chocolate, it takes awhile for it to stop dripping.

So, if you are not careful, you will drizzle chocolate all over the other strawberries on the tray.  Not a big deal when you are using the same kind of chocolate, but if you decide to start dipping in say, white chocolate, you have suddenly created a slightly modified concoction.  No worries, we discovered…it actually transforms them from ordinary to extraordinary!  We now purposely drizzle in white, dark and milk!

And we’ve branched out beyond strawberries and pretzels.  We’ve dipped Oreo cookies (we like double stuffed), grapes, raisins, miniature marshmallows, caramel squares, peanuts, roasted pecans and almonds (salted are best), potato chips, peanut butter stuffed pretzels…honestly, if it appeals to you, give it a try.  You may end up inventing your own delectable delight.

Then, if you’re feeling like you want to add a few creative touches, not only can you drizzle more chocolate, you can also cover them in colorful sprinkles, chopped nuts, chopped toffee, other crushed candy, and little candy decorations, to name a few. Once again, imagination is key, and if it appeals to you, it will probably appeal to others too.  Lately we’ve seen advertisements for chocolates sprinkled with sea salt.  We haven’t tried it, but it is probably good.

The complements and comments over the years have been amazing.  We are now in our twenties, but when we run into former teachers and friends from the past, they still tell us they remember those hand-dipped chocolates and they ask if we’re still making them. When we say yes, they sigh and give a big smile.

So would you call this a hobby?  While not something we do all the time, it is something we like to do now and again, particularly at Christmas.  For us, it is a nice alternative (or complement) to traditional cookies.  Both are good and have their place, but if you are looking for a fool proof, easy recipe, you can’t beat dipping chocolates for a fabulous change of pace.  Our melting process calls for putting the chocolate disks in a microwave safe bowl and melting on high for one (1) minute.  Take out the bowl, stir and then return for shorter intervals (30 seconds, then 15 seconds, then 10 seconds).  You do not want to over heat the chocolate because that changes the consistency and ruins the flavor (learned that the hard way).  So don’t get impatient and try to heat for longer intervals.  (If you ask at the store where you buy the chocolate, you’ll no doubt find an expert there that will be happy to give you all kinds of advice).  And if you don’t use all the chocolate that you’ve bought, it can be frozen for another time.    Video of Dipping Strawberries (note: glass of wine and music are optional!)

Our only problem:  they have become so popular that we end up making what feels like thousands.  So be prepared to find a place to store them (you want to keep them cool) and to package them so they stay fresh.  Or just make enough for yourself and ENJOY!  You really can’t go wrong.

Short Video of Dipping