Nov 292015
Celebrating his first Thanksgiving in the kitchen!

Celebrating his first Thanksgiving in the kitchen!

What a grand weekend it has been!

There has been so much to worry about in the news lately with the Paris shootings and the escalating situation in Syria. While consciously, I know that I am in little danger, you can’t be exposed to news like this and not internalize it in some way. A few days after the Paris shootings, I woke up one morning from a dream in which gunmen were chasing me and I was trying to find my children and escape.

Thanksgiving weekend was a welcome respite. I needed that time to reconnect with family, reaffirm that everyone was safe and free my mind to focus on fun things like eating and shopping.

Thanksgiving came by all too quickly for us. I was ill with the flu and pneumonia the first part of November and lost about half the month in recovery. My wonderful sister came to the rescue and invited to host Thanksgiving at her house. I told her I wanted to contribute something to the feast.

“Bring whatever you like but ZERO pressure!”

For our family, Thanksgiving has become a cooking holiday. We don’t live near much family so we end up cooking a lot of the meal ourselves. It has become one of our new traditions to try out new recipes and the kids have taken to becoming dessert chefs for the meal. I asked my girls what they wanted to prepare and we settled on pumpkin pie and chocolate-something.

My need for safety and reassurance permeated my cooking as well. I decided that I should learn to make an apple pie. I don’t think I have ever made one before. There is nothing more American than apple pie and I wanted a reminder of tradition and all the things that make the U.S. a great country.

The day before Thanksgiving was pie day. While I was originally going to work with each girl individually to make her recipe, my eldest son announced that he was going to be cooking too. So, we shifted to brother-sister teams. Each brother-sister pair made a pie and then I, along with my chef-in-training son made the apple pie. Fortunately, all came out delicious!

Pumpkin pie can be a controversial flavor but my daughter and I love it!

Pumpkin pie can be a controversial flavor but my daughter and I love it!

First up, team pumpkin pie!

First up, team pumpkin pie!

The finished pie ready for baking!

The finished pie ready for baking!

I used some of the leftover pumpkin puree to make a version of Gwyneth's sweet potato pie smoothie.

I used some of the leftover pumpkin puree to make a version of Gwyneth’s sweet potato pie smoothie.

My son also liked the smoothie.

My son also liked the smoothie.

Next up, team chocolate chip!

Next up, team chocolate chip!

All the children loved working with the stand mixer.

All the children loved working with the stand mixer.

Pie ready for baking!

Pie ready for baking!

My son's enthusiasm for cooking was so fun to see.  He thought rolling pie crust was awesome!

My son’s enthusiasm for cooking was so fun to see. He thought rolling pie crust was awesome!

My homemade pie crust.  Not that difficult to make and tastes like a butter cookie when baked!

My homemade pie crust. Not that difficult to make and tastes like a butter cookie when baked!

Lattice-topped apple pie...a classic.

Lattice-topped apple pie…a classic.

The finished pies and salad.  I learned a trick from my sister-in-law that pomegranate seeds on your Thanksgiving table add instant elegance.

The finished pies and salad. I learned a trick from my sister-in-law that pomegranate seeds on your Thanksgiving table add instant elegance.

We loaded up into the car and drove to my sister’s house. She prepared a huge feast of numerous delectable dishes as well as a gorgeous 20-pound turkey! We ate to grand sufficiency and had a wonderful time.

Our gorgeous and delicious feast!

Our gorgeous and delicious feast!



Below are links to the recipes we tried this year. All were supremely delicious!

Have any Thanksgiving memories or recipes to share? Please comment!

Dec 022014
Inspired by a designer wreath, my Thanksgiving wreath design.

Inspired by a designer wreath, my Thanksgiving wreath design.

I have needed a wreath for my front door to fill the holiday gap between Halloween and Christmas. I have my black tulle wreath for Halloween and usually try to find a fresh pine wreath for Christmas but November has a gap.

Early this fall, while flipping quickly through a design catalog, I came across an unusual wreath of ruffled burlap with orange flowers. I thought the materials and colors perfectly reflected November. It was quite expensive but I tore out the page for inspiration, wondering if I could make my own version.

I began by making a base for the wreath from two wire coat hangers, leaving one end open.

Two wire coat hangers became the base for my wreath.

Two wire coat hangers became the base for my wreath.

I then cut simple long rectangles of burlap about 13″ wide and a yard or two long, folded them in half and sewed tubes.

Stitching the burlap tubes.

Stitching the burlap tubes.

I used two tubes and slid them onto the open hanger, stitching the tubes together by hand.

Adding the burlap tubes to the wreath form.

Adding the burlap tubes to the wreath form.

At this point, there was some creative hand sewing to get the ruffles just right. I don’t really have instructions for this. I just made stitches where necessary to keep the ruffles bunching correctly. (I also realized that in most craft projects there probably is a lot of this “fussy” behind the scenes detail work, which is why most of us never end up with a result that looks exactly like the instructions we are following.)

Then, it was time to make the flowers. I was inspired by some handmade flowers my artistic aunt recently created. I googled how to make them and came up with this video.

I used leftover polyester fabric from our Halloween costumes. The first step was to cut out circles from the fabric, which I did much of while waiting for my children’s soccer lessons.

Cutting lots of circles of various sizes from orange and yellow polyester fabric.

Cutting lots of circles of various sizes from orange and yellow polyester fabric.

The next step was FIRE! You hold the edge of the fabric near a candle flame, just long enough to melt the edge and curl it but without singeing it or burning it. It took some practice before I stopped burning the fabric.

Burning the edges of the circles with a candle to make them curl and seal the ends.

Burning the edges of the circles with a candle to make them curl and seal the ends.

The YouTube tutorial suggested cutting small slits in each circle to create petal shapes. These were rather difficult to burn and I singed the ends of most of my first few flowers. When I looked at my aunt’s example, it seemed that she did not cut the slits and just used the circles whole. I tried this technique and it was far easier and just as beautiful.

Two options for burning patterns: on the left, the result of burning the circle uncut.  On the right, cutting small slits in the circle before burning to create more of a petal shape.

Two options for burning patterns: on the left, the result of burning the circle uncut. On the right, cutting small slits in the circle before burning to create more of a petal shape.

I then had a whole stack of petals on the table. I started showing my daughter how to stack all the orange together and all the yellow together to make the flowers I had in mind based on the tutorial.

A large collection of burnt  petals.

A large collection of burnt petals.

My daughter took one look at my examples and the huge collection of petals and informed me that I was being far too restrictive in my combinations. She quickly pulled together the most beautiful combinations of yellow and orange and also told me to make some with just the small petals so I had flowers of different sizes. Her artistic talents amaze me sometimes.

My daughter inspired me to combine the the petals in various combinations to create more interest.

My daughter inspired me to combine the the petals in various combinations to create more interest.

The next step was to hand sew a few stitches to keep the petals together in the finished flowers. My youngest daughter informed me that she wanted to learn how to do this. We sewed the first few together, with me pushing in the needle and her pulling it through. Then I gave her a threaded needle and told her to try it herself. She did a beautiful job!

Sewing flowers with the help of my daughter.

Sewing flowers with the help of my daughter.

The pile of finished flowers.

The pile of finished flowers.

My daughters had big plans for these flowers. They wanted to sprinkle them all over our Thanksgiving table as decorations. Fortunately, we had some left over and their plans were realized. They looked amazing!

A simple but elegant touch sprinkling the flowers all over the Thanksgiving table!

A simple but elegant touch sprinkling the flowers all over the Thanksgiving table!

It was then time to attach the flowers to the burlap base. While you could glue them, I like to be able to wash my wreaths before I put them into storage so I sewed the flowers on by hand. This was another part of the process where there aren’t specific instructions but a loose method of figuring out how many to use and where to put them. In the designer example I was following they bunched them all on one side.

To finish it off, I added a tulle hanger loop and a tulle bow. I also used more hidden tulle as ties to help with bunching the burlap together attractively.

In the end, I had something similar to my designer example but a bit more simplified. I love how it came out and it means even more to me seeing the work of my daughters reflected in it too.

Our Thanksgiving friendly front door.

Our Thanksgiving friendly front door.

Dec 012014
The scene the day before Thanksgiving.

The scene the day before Thanksgiving.

It has been quite a weekend and I am still in disbelief that it is the first of December!

We started off with weather drama–our first snow of the season! It was only a dusting that melted quickly but enough to cause panic. We did our grocery shopping the day before the storm and the store was packed.

Glad to be done with the grocery shopping!

Glad to be done with the grocery shopping!

When we got home, I took the time to thoroughly clean out the fridge as I unpacked the groceries and this was my best Thanksgiving organizational tip. I found that my trusty sanding sponges are great for scrubbing sticky messes out of the fridge. With the fridge cleaned out, there was space for holding the brining turkey. I also had a fresh supply of plastic food storage containers and only good, fresh ingredients to work with. We only have one fridge to work with so we have to make the most of the space.

The tidied fridge with groceries unpacked.

The tidied fridge with groceries unpacked.

On the day before Thanksgiving, we ideally would have stayed home but I had a pregnancy checkup to attend. With light snow falling, my husband did not want me traveling alone so the entire family packed up and we all had a beautiful journey to the doctor through snow-covered farmland.

Virginia has some of the most beautiful farmland in the country and it is even more charming with a dusting of snow.

Virginia has some of the most beautiful farmland in the country and it is even more charming with a dusting of snow.

Once back from our travels it was time to get cooking.


The main courses of our Thanksgiving feast.

The main courses of our Thanksgiving feast.

The Turkey

While most cooks will advise you to stick to what you know for important meals like Thanksgiving, I find it more interesting when cooking for my own family to try some experiments. I read Padma Lakshmi’s advice on cooking a Thanksgiving turkey by brining it in buttermilk and cooking it with apples and oranges and found it so unusual I had to try it.

The brining ingredients: buttermilk (with a little salt and sugar added) and turkey.

The brining ingredients: buttermilk (with a little salt and sugar added) and turkey.

Brining the turkey in buttermilk in a turkey roasting bag in the fridge for about a day and a half.

Brining the turkey in buttermilk in a turkey roasting bag in the fridge for about a day and a half.

Cutting up apples and oranges for the seasoning.

Cutting up apples and oranges for the seasoning.

This year I had to plan some extra time to teach my inquisitive daughters who wanted to help.  Here: showing my daughter how to peel an apple.

This year I had to plan some extra time to teach my inquisitive daughters who wanted to help. Here: showing my daughter how to peel an apple.

I stuffed the apples and oranges inside the cavity, tucked a few in between the skin and the breast meat and put the rest in the bottom of the pan along with a little bit of water.

I stuffed the apples and oranges inside the cavity, tucked a few in between the skin and the breast meat and put the rest in the bottom of the pan along with a little bit of water.

After several hours, the turkey was done!

After several hours, the turkey was done!

Everyone loved this turkey, especially my children. The turkey was moist and delicious and the fruit gave it just a bit of sweetness.

Corn Pudding

Another new recipe was trying the Virginia selected recipe of “Corn Pudding” from The New York Times’ list. Apparently this list was rather controversial. This NBC News story about Minnesota’s outrage over “grape salad” was hilarious. I must say that I have never heard of corn pudding before but then being a relatively recent transplant to Virginia I didn’t feel qualified to judge.

Shaving the corn kernels for corn pudding.  It was actually quite hard to find corn in the grocery store this time of year.

Shaving the corn kernels for corn pudding. It was actually quite hard to find corn in the grocery store this time of year.

In general, corn pudding is quite a simple recipe but the cooking process is a bit unusual. You cook the pudding in a water bath. Generally, you do this in the oven but since my oven was occupied by the turkey I used the electric skilled my in-laws gave to me one year as a present. This is a lifesaver when you need more oven space.

Corn pudding is cooked by steaming it in a water bath.

Corn pudding is cooked by steaming it in a water bath.

My only problem with the electric skillet for this cooking method was that the steam condensed onto the top of the pudding. We had to drain it before eating to remove the excess water. Other than that, it seemed to cook perfectly!

Corn pudding.

Corn pudding.

What does corn pudding taste like? If you have ever had a dessert like flan or the Greek dessert Galataboureko you have an idea of the general consistency and sweetness of this dish. Then add some corn kernels to it. It is really quite sweet. It must come out of the same southern tradition as sweet potatoes with marshmallows. In general, we liked it. I am not sure if we would make it every year but it is an interesting side dish.


Our stuffing came from a basic package mix. The only change this year was that we tried the “cornbread” variety and it was delicious!

Stuffing ingredients.

Stuffing ingredients.

Garlic Cauliflower Mash

So, when you are trying new recipes, not every recipe can be a winner and this one definitely is not! I wanted to include a vegetable and a clean eating recipe in our meal. This alternative to mashed potatoes sounded great but tasted terrible! It might have been better with either no garlic or just a very tiny amount. The garlic in this was overpowering and made it inedible. I even tried heating it up a bit the next day to reduce the garlic taste but it was just awful. Most of this went into the garbage.

Reboot with Joe's Garlic Cauliflower Mash - not a winner for us.

Reboot with Joe’s Garlic Cauliflower Mash – not a winner for us.

In the match-up between traditional boxed mashed potatoes and the healthy alternative, garlic cauliflower mash, the potatoes were the clear winner!

In the match-up between traditional boxed mashed potatoes and the healthy alternative, garlic cauliflower mash, the potatoes were the clear winner!

Cranberry Mousse Mold

I thought it would be humorous and a reference to my home state of Utah (Jello capital of the world) to serve some sort of Jello dish with our dinner. We tried this Cranberry Mousse Mold. The first problem with this recipe is that it is impossible to find cranberry flavored Jello. I checked several stores and none of them had it. I ended up using strawberry instead. I put the whole box in but the Jello just never ended up setting up correctly. There seemed to be too much liquid from the cranberry sauce and water. To make it work, I ended up freezing it but it began to melt quickly as soon as it came out of the freezer.

The cranberry jello mold disaster.

The cranberry jello mold disaster.

It’s very disappointing to ruin a Jello recipe! The flavor was actually OK but the consistency was all wrong. I’ll have to try again with a different recipe.

Pumpkin Cream Pie

Pumpkin pie is controversial in our house. Some of us love it and some of us can’t stand it. I saw this recipe for Pumpkin Cream Pie and thought it sounded interesting. The comments said that it was a great pie for people who hate pumpkin pie.

Ingredients for pumpkin cream pie.

Ingredients for pumpkin cream pie.

My 6 year old took ownership of making this recipe with me. She thought the filling was delicious and creamy but her favorite was the whipped cream with brown sugar and pumpkin pie spice. I loved the whole thing and even the pumpkin pie haters in the house said that this was delicious! This is a definite keeper for us and very easy too.

The finished pumpkin cream pie.

The finished pumpkin cream pie.

The proud pumpkin pie chef.

The proud pumpkin pie chef.

Rolo Stuffed Pumpkin Spice Pudding Cookies

This recipe has been on my to make list for a while. I missed the small print about how you can substitute the pumpkin spice pudding for vanilla pudding with 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice added so I was desperately searching stores for pumpkin spice pudding. This was as impossible to find as the cranberry Jello! During our Thanksgiving shopping, I just happened to find a box of the pumpkin spice Jello and I grabbed it.

The elusive pumpkin spice Jello pudding.

The elusive pumpkin spice Jello pudding.

My eldest daughter took ownership of this dessert as chocolate chip cookies and Rolos are her favorites!

Ingredients for Rolo Pumpkin Spice Pudding Cookies.

Ingredients for Rolo Pumpkin Spice Pudding Cookies.

The trickiest part, burying the Rolos in the cookie dough.

The trickiest part, burying the Rolos in the cookie dough.

These cookies were very rich and chocolaty fresh out of the oven. They actually tasted better the next day when everything solidified a bit.

The proud cookie chef.

The proud cookie chef.

Our awesome desserts.  Both were fabulous!

Our awesome desserts. Both were fabulous!

Overall, it was a wondrous feast! We have so much to be thankful for this year.

The rest of the weekend, however, went steadily downhill. The next morning, my son awoke with a terrible digestive virus, which then spread throughout the whole family, sparing only my husband. So, despite all this rich eating, I ended up losing a pound and a half!

While I had big plans to get a start on our holiday decorating, I ended up cleaning up terrible messes, washing bedding, disinfecting surfaces, and sleeping in to try to recover myself. Caring for sick children while you are sick yourself is the most exhausting task as a parent. We are all on the mend now and feeling much better but still recovering a bit. I did manage however to get quite a bit of our holiday shopping done online as well as catch up on my knitting. We are starting December a little behind but hope to catch up a bit this week.

Hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! Any great recipes or memories to share?

Nov 182014
My son, proving Phyllis Diller's famous quote true: "“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.”  He sabotaged my efforts first with baking soda and then maple syrup!

My son, proving Phyllis Diller’s famous quote true: ““Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the sidewalk before it stops snowing.” He sabotaged my efforts first with baking soda and then maple syrup!

As the holiday season approaches, one of the most dreaded tasks is cleaning your house for hosting guests. There is enough to do with all the cooking and decorating but the cleaning obligations can take over your life!

I have been immersed in a fall deep clean of the house lately to get ready for entertaining. Our home always needs a twice yearly scrub-down, including shampooing carpets, cleaning upholstery, dusting, etc. It could probably use it more often but I can only summon the energy twice a year!

There is no secret to making all this scrubbing for company a bit easier. The current popular aesthetic is not only for things to look clean but also to look brand new. If you have an older house, that is tougher to pull off and requires more scrubbing effort. It is hard, back-breaking work but it does look great when it is done and guests love it.

Through a long process of trial and error cleaning my own home, I have come up with a few cleaning tips that are making a big difference in my house.

A Salad Dressing for Leather Furniture

Olive oil and vinegar for cleaning leather.  Who would have thought?

Olive oil and vinegar for cleaning leather. Who would have thought?

My leather dining chairs were crying out for a good clean. After getting rid of all the crumbs and trinkets that our children have managed to stuff into the crevices in the seats, I needed a nice, moisturizing cleaner to reinvigorate the leather. We didn’t have any leather cleaners in the house so I looked online for a homemade solution. I found this one and tried it out. It smells like salad dressing but the vinegar smell does fade within a few hours. The olive oil absorbs into the leather within about a day or so. My husband even noticed how much better the chairs looked after this treatment!

Sandpaper for Deep Cleaning

Sanding sponges, an essential part of my cleaning arsenal now.

Sanding sponges, an essential part of my cleaning arsenal now.

After I discovered that sandpaper does an amazing job reinvigorating toilet bowls, I wondered if sanding sponges could work in other tough situations. I bought a box of them at Home Depot and keep them in the cleaning supplies cabinet. They are terrific for scrubbing crusted on stains off of laminate counters and (when used with very gentle pressure) on hardwood floors. They removed baked on grit from a glass baking dish. They scrub tubs and countertops in the bathroom beautifully too. This is also the miracle cleaner for my oven. It gets rid of grease and burnt food with just water and some scrubbing. No harsh chemicals needed.

One caution with this method, however. You need to test each surface first as the sandpaper can scratch and ruin certain things. Don’t use it on chrome bathroom fixtures as it will scratch.

My "sanded," sparkling oven.

My “sanded,” sparkling oven.

My Miracle Carpet Cleaning Formula

My new favorite "recipe" for carpet cleaning.

My new favorite “recipe” for carpet cleaning.

When you have older rugs and carpets to clean, it can be tricky. Sometimes when the carpet gets wet from the cleaning it can release smells from all the old stains that have ever penetrated the carpeting. The smells don’t go away until the carpet has dried for several days. I have tried all kinds of carpet soaps, laundry detergents and even bleach and had this same problem.

This year, I really wanted to avoid the smells so I tried a new concoction and it worked beautifully! First, I thoroughly vacuumed the carpeting. If there were any stains on the carpeting, I sprayed some Tuff Stuff cleaner on them. I then put some diluted Lysol cleaner in a spray bottle and sprayed the entire carpet. I then sprayed the carpet with a light coat of Febreeze. In the carpet cleaning machine, I put more diluted Lysol in the soap dispenser and no other soaps or detergents. I tried to rinse each area of the carpet twice with clear water as I went. The carpets came out beautifully clean and didn’t really smell of anything. They dried nicely and quickly as well. I used this on both colored and light colored carpeting and didn’t have any discoloration but, of course, if you are going to try this yourself, test a small patch first.

Hope these tips might help anyone else out there scrubbing away! My sympathies!

Dec 012012

Our bountiful feast this year! We have much to be thankful for.

It is the end of November and the holiday season has wreaked havoc on my blogging ambitions.  I wanted to share a few images of our Thanksgiving this year.

Last year, I was busy making mini pumpkin pies for the preschool feast and this year all I managed was canned cranberry sauce.  My daughter made an excellent “Chief” however.

Nature is busy at this time too.  These geese crossed the road in front of my car in an impressively lengthy procession.

Goose procession.

For the big turkey day, we were fortunate to have Ruly Ruth and her family come visit.  The cousins had a terrific time hanging out together and Ruth and I pulled together a great meal.

We kept things simple this year.  The only big things to make were the turkey and sweet potato pie for dessert.  The rest of the sides were simple heat-and-eat types of things that were more kid-friendly for our group but they were no less delicious.

Last year, I made a turkey breast that came out really well so I just repeated that recipe this year.  My brother-in-law gave me a very kind compliment and said that I “made it look easy.”

Carving the turkey,

We also repeated the White House sweet potato pie recipe from last year.  The pie didn’t go quite as well as last year.  It came out OK but the flavors weren’t quite as wonderful as I remembered.  Either I did something wrong or this is just an example of how novelty heightens our senses.

This year's version of White House sweet potato pie. (We didn't eat those burned tops of the crust. The rest of the crust was fine)

To make things elegant and as a wonderful reminder of the family who can’t be with us, we served the dinner on my grandmother’s pottery plates and serving dishes and used my other grandmother’s glassware and hand-embroidered linens.  It makes such a difference to have handmade or vintage family things at a traditional and important meal like Thanksgiving.  I also like to add some small votive candles for atmosphere.  Ruly Ruth added Thanksgiving “crackers” borrowing a British tradition.  We all had fun wearing our paper hats and reciting the silly jokes inside.

The Thanksgiving crackers were a fun addition to the table. My nephew downed all of those rolls but informed me they would have been even better if they were Hawaiian rolls.

A couple of fun planning tips to share.  This year and last year, I decided to cook only a turkey breast and not a whole turkey.  I was worried that it would not be enough to feed 9 people but it was more than sufficient.  Everyone could eat as much as they wanted and the leftovers were used up in their entirety the next day in a delicious turkey noodle soup Ruth made.  Marketplace Money recently featured a story about how much turkey is wasted on Thanksgiving and serving parts of a turkey (drumsticks, the breast, wings, etc.) instead of the whole turkey is one way to both save money and reduce waste.

Turkey soup from the leftovers. Delicious!

Another great tip learned this year….if you are eating later in the day and you need to figure out how to feed everyone lunch so they are not starving by the time the big meal starts or have something ready for guests who might pop in, break out the Crockpot!  Ruth made this simple but flavorful and delicious tortilla soup that was light but filling.

Crockpot tortilla soup was a great pre-Thanksgiving snack/meal.

Overall, it was an enjoyable and relatively low-stress holiday!  Cheers to my sister for making the trip!

I hope your celebration was wonderful as well.  Have any Thanksgiving recipes or stories to share?  Please share in the comments.

Nov 252011

Our Thanksgiving meal. The popcorn is my daughter's addition.

What a feast! I spent all day cooking and just about the time many people were probably getting in their cars for some early Black Friday shopping we were sitting down to eat. My 3 year old decided that the proper attire for such a meal was pajamas. Obviously, I still need to work on my timing but our meal was probably the best full Thanksgiving I have ever prepared!

We tried the collard greens and have mixed feelings about them. They are kind of delicious but the chewy texture is a little tough to get used to. They go down best with extra red hot pepper sauce and they were pretty good again today in our Thanksgiving leftovers sandwiches.

Collard greens (from Paula Deen's recipe).

I also made Cristeta Comerford’s sweet potato pie. This was kind of a funny experience. For some reason, even though I read through the recipe beforehand, I did not process exactly what would be required to make this pie. Here is a bit of my thought process.

First, I put the “aromatics” on a sheet tray and baked the sweet potatoes. I forgot to buy an orange so I quickly grated the zest off the lemon that I needed for the custard part and cut that up instead. I left them in the oven for about an hour.

I then worked on the dough which ultimately came together nicely into a ball as the recipe described.

After taking the dough out from its “rest,” I suddenly realized that I would need to roll this out into a real pie crust…something I have NEVER done before. After a few false starts, I finally got it rolled out

and made a half-decent pie crust.

Then the recipe said, “Top with parchment paper and cooking beads and bake blind for 12 minutes.” Small problem . . . we didn’t have parchment paper. I am not sure what cooking beads are and I don’t know what “bake blind” means. Somehow I recalled either a recipe I made years ago (or maybe something I saw on TV) and lined the crust with aluminum foil and put some uncooked rice in to weight it down.

Fox Run Ceramic Pie Weights at

It came out OK so I figured that must have been close enough.

Next it was time to prepare the sweet potato puree. Things were going OK until the recipe said, “Scoop the meat and pass through a chinoise.” What in the world is a chinoise? I scooped out the sweet potato meat and mashed it with a fork. (I thought to use the strainer in the picture below but the meat was too tough to go through.)

It was still pretty lumpy so I put it in the blender for a bit! The blender couldn’t handle it either so it was back to mashing with a fork again.

Norpro Stainless Steel Chinois with Stand and Pestle Set at

I got it as smooth as I could but there were still a few lumps in it. I probably should have cooked the potatoes some more at this point to make it softer but I needed the oven and didn’t think to do it on top of the stove. I assumed the chinoise must be some super sort of masher or blender that would get all the lumps out. It is.

After getting the puree as smooth as I could, I made the custard and added it in. Things were looking pretty good at this point!

I poured the filling into the crust and put it in the oven.

Fat Daddio's Fluted Tart Pan 12 Inch x 2 Inch Removable Bottom at

While Cristeta’s recipe calls for a “12 inch tart pan,” the grocery store did not sell this so I substituted a 9” pie pan. The problem is that making the pie deeper will increase the cooking time. After the 35 minutes the recipe called for, the crust was perfectly brown but the center of the pie was still uncooked. I gave it 10 more minutes but it still was nowhere near to being cooked. I lowered the heat to 250 and let it cook for probably another hour or so. This pie smells incredible while it is baking! I think it is due to the anise. My husband came down and said, “Mmmmm…..something smells soo good!” which was very satisfying after all that work. I let the pie cook for as long as I could but eventually I needed the oven for my turkey so I took it out and hoped for the best.

As I was washing up dishes after our meal, I noticed that the tag for my Pyrex pie pan indicated that you should never put glass under the broiler. Small problem for the honey meringue topping for dessert! Rather than risk burning the whole pie and cracking my pie dish, I decided to make the meringue on a metal sheet tray and just scoop it onto the pie.

The honey meringue topping is the very best part of this whole dish. Even if sweet potato pie does not appeal to you, you should try this meringue and have it on ice cream or cake. It is soooooooo good. I whipped the egg whites.

Added the warm honey (which, unfortunately had boiled over on the stove leaving me a honey mess to clean up).

Poured it on the baking sheet . . .

and put it under the broiler for about 30 seconds. It came out nice and brown.

The broiler just browns the top and doesn’t firm the meringue so it doesn’t scoop all that well but you can imagine how good this would be if done properly.

When we cut into the finished pie, it was pretty good!

My daughters who liked the mini pumpkin pies I made earlier in the week anxiously wanted a slice. But then they saw that my pie had some chunks of sweet potato in it.

“I don’t like this. It has vegetables in it.”
my 3 year old reported.

After this experience, we can conclude two things:

1) Cristeta Comerford is a seriously talented chef. If I can mess up her recipe this badly and it still comes out relatively great, that shows some serious cooking skills. Her flavorings are so subtle, beautiful and unique. The Obamas must eat some elegant food.

2) Before I attempt another recipe of this culinary magnitude, I need to double check for the right cooking utensils as well as ingredients. If you have all of these utensils in your kitchen, you are probably a seriously talented chef as well!

I hope your Thanksgiving cooking (or eating) experience was just as fun and interesting.

Ruly Tip: If you did cook this year, consider taking a moment to write your recipe(s) down as well as any notes about shopping for special ingredients or cooking tools, how long it takes to make, etc. Store your notes and recipes in a special file, binder or type it on a 3×5 card and create a flip-book ring. Not only will this help you next year when you are planning your meal but it is a great way to preserve memories and would make a great gift to a new cook as well.

What were your favorite foods at the Thanksgiving table this year? What other memories do you want to remember? Please share in the comments.

Nov 222011

So far, almost everyone I have spoken with is not cooking this Thanksgiving! They are all traveling or joining a group dinner at a family member’s home. We are on our own this holiday (but missing our families across the country dearly) so I will be cooking for my family.

I had a little Thanksgiving preview this morning, having the privilege of accompanying a young “Native American” to her preschool Thanksgiving feast.

We made mashed potatoes and mini pumpkin pies and had a mini feast with the other kids and moms and dads. The house now smells of pumpkin pie and is setting a warm and festive tone for the long weekend.

While I have told you numerous times that I am still a novice cook, there are a couple lessons I have learned the hard way about cooking for Thanksgiving.

1) If you don’t have your turkey, go to the store as soon as possible! Last night, the grocery store closest to our house ran out of frozen turkeys! “And we aren’t getting any more,” the butcher informed an inquiring customer. But don’t stress, you could always go for something else—a turkey breast instead of a whole turkey, turkey drumsticks or wings, ground turkey for turkey burgers, etc. Over the years, we have been so busy working that the only time we had to go to the store was right on Thanksgiving Day. At that time, all that was left were some Cornish game hens in the freezer section. Those worked out just fine too—much better than the year that all that was left was an enormous 20 pound turkey! After years of getting it wrong, this year I got my turkey early, picking up a frozen turkey breast in early November.

2) If you have a frozen turkey, it is time to put it in the fridge to defrost. If it doesn’t defrost in time, you will have to put it in cold water baths in the sink. (I have no idea what happens if you put a frozen turkey right into the oven but I suspect the results are terrible as no one recommends this.)

3) Spread out the cooking. If you are making a lot of side dishes or desserts, many chefs suggest that you make them tomorrow, one day ahead, and store them in the fridge so they just need to be reheated on Thanksgiving Day.

4) Create a cooking timeline. It is also a good idea to review your recipes today to see what you should cook tomorrow versus Thursday so that you have enough oven space for your dishes. It is also time to buy any missing ingredients and start setting your table.

We try to mix things up each Thanksgiving and add something new to the menu. This year, we are adding a Southern twist to our meal. For the first time ever, we will try cooking collard greens! We have never tasted them before but we understand that many people consider them a Thanksgiving staple. The nutritional value of the greens is so high it probably would be a good idea if we all started eating them. We are using Paula Deen’s recipe. By the time Paula Deen finishes with these greens, they may not be nutritious any more but they are certain to taste incredible!

Collard greens in abundance at the grocery store.

The other new food we are trying out is sweet potato pie. Until we moved to the D.C. area, we had never heard of sweet potato pie. It too is a southern staple. Those that don’t eat sweet potato pie, have a casserole of sweet potatoes, marshmallows and brown sugar. For my first sweet potato pie, I am being a bit ambitious and trying out White House chef Cristeta Comerford’s version. I know I am already in over my head as our local grocery store does not carry star anise nor crème fraiche. We had to substitute anise extract and sour cream. I hope this doesn’t ruin it. I have also never broiled meringue before. Wish me luck that I don’t burn it! If all else fails, we have the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies on hand!

Louisiana yams (sweet potatoes).

As I mentioned above, my other dessert risk this year was to make mini pumpkin pies. They turned out really cute and my pumpkin pie hating husband even liked them since they don’t have a soggy pumpkin middle and are more crunchy in texture from the crust.

We took this recipe for graham cracker crust and pressed it into mini muffin cups.


We made the recipe on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can and poured in the filling. We baked the mini pies for about 12 minutes at 350 degrees and then lowered the oven temperature to about 300 degrees and kept checking every 5 minutes until a knife inserted in the center came out clean. We had so much filling left over that I was able to make another pumpkin pie in a square casserole dish!

The finished mini pies. They were quite popular and my picky 6-year old even ate them! Success!

To all of my readers, wishing you a very Happy Thanksgiving and hope that you enjoy this special time with your family and loved ones!

Are you cooking for Thanksgiving? What is on your menu this year? Please share in the comments.

Nov 172011

Next week, we are coming up on the biggest meat-eating holiday of the entire year . . . Thanksgiving!  As a special challenge to Ruly Ruth, I inquired what she would do if she had to host a vegetarian Thanksgiving.  While I have never been invited to such an event myself, I have encountered several people in the D.C. area who have hosted vegetarian Thanksgiving celebrations.  One friend indicated that her father was livid that there would be no turkey on Thanksgiving, even though she was preparing “Tofurky.”  How would Ruly Ruth resolve this situation?  Read on for her suggestions.


Ruly Ruth is a carnivore who seeks out rare meats–I’ve eaten kangaroo, crocodile, alligator, caribou, elk, deer, buffalo, moose, and the list goes on. So 2 problems with this presented themselves immediately: 1) wrapping my head around a non-traditional turkey Thanksgiving; and 2) Thanksgiving is traditionally a meal around a large meat roast–the iconic image of Norman Rockwell! It’s not like other holidays where the meal can be mixed or matched…’s turkey! And Stuffing! And gravy! And potatoes (usually) and vegetables–often carrots, sometimes parsnips….with cranberry jelly or sauce…or lingonberry jelly for me! So why or how on earth would I come up with a MEATLESS Thanksgiving???

Then I had an epiphany. And it was actually based on a new recipe for turkey–this woman did it southwest style with tamales instead of stuffing inside! So I’ve decided that Thanksgiving is more about regional and hearty and beloved cuisine than the traditional magazine spread.

So for your main course–to veer from that roasted meat platter….go regional! Make tamales, or enchiladas. In Greece, we could do a lovely spanikopita. Or Italian–with raviolis or lasagna. Or eggplant parmesan! That would make a lovely centerpiece. And couscous or a rice dish to compliment. Obviously sweet potatoes or regular potatoes go with all of this! My mother makes a killer stuffing out of pine nuts, celery, carrots and who knows what else—it’s not a bread-based stuffing–but it’s AMAZING and lovely! Something like that would be a great compliment too.

Another idea especially with the colder weather approaching for most of us, is to do a wonderful hearty soup! Potato leek or a nice pumpkin soup with a lovely roll or bread load would be wonderful. (This would also make a wonderful appetizer as well.) And a great side salad—sounds like a great meal to me!

And lovely fruits for dessert–I just watched Gordon Ramsay on the F Word make a lemon curd tart, to mix it up from a traditional pumpkin pie. We’ve also had cheesecake in the past, and special ice creams as well–very fun to mix it up at times.

Sourcing ingredients for special meals is often where I will splurge on my precious grocery dollars. Going to a farmer’s market for the vegetables and fruit, and specialty shops for jams or lemon curd or fresh breads or what-have-you is a special treat–and what better time than the holidays to do this, when you’re preparing a meal for very special family and friends! Also this supports these local businesses that may not get our usual weekly grocery money. A win-win, I’d say!

Also don’t forget to spread the love of the meal and donate an item or more to the local food bank. My daughter’s preschool is collecting food for a meal for 4 for Thanksgiving. She’ll be bringing in 2 boxes of turkey stuffing. Canned cranberry jelly, stuffing, mashed potatoes mixes, canned pumpkin–don’t forget to add 1 or more of these basic Thanksgiving items to your cart this next shopping trip! It’s greatly appreciated.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


So, Ruly Ruth says if you are serving veggie Thanksgiving to meat eaters, don’t use a soy-based meat substitute but rather go for something completely different.  Would you mind if there was no turkey at your Thanksgiving celebration?  Any vegetarians out there?  What do you say?  Please share in the comments.

P.S.  FabFitFun also did a post today about vegetarian Thanksgiving.  You can read their suggestions and recipes here.

Nov 242010

My Yiayia's Table. This one was for my high school graduation.

This Thanksgiving is bittersweet in our family. We have so much to be thankful for–truly too many things to count. However, our Thanksgiving table is one person short this year, having recently lost the matriarch of my father’s family, our beloved Yiayia.

Yiayia was an incredible person in many ways. She lived an interesting and challenging life defined primarily by her upbringing as the child of Greek immigrant parents. Her parents instilled in their four daughters respect for tradition, high standards of hospitality and an expectation of class, elegance and great aspirations. They also taught their daughters a bit of toughness.

Yiayia lived these values. She had so many talents including cooking, playing the piano, creating artful flower arrangements, knitting, sewing, and gardening. Yiayia learned to drive by “borrowing” the family car and teaching herself. She traveled the world in her retirement and had a determined (but lovable) stubbornness to do things her way.

Her skills as a hostess are legendary. She insisted on lavish dinners on every major holiday, birthday, engagement, baby shower, graduation and sometimes just because. She did almost all of the cooking herself and decorated the tables with flower arrangements and her best china. The menu was always an elaborate array of Greek dishes mixed with some standard fare.

Each gathering typically started with tarama appetizers in her pristinely clean living room with wine for the adults and ginger ale for the kids. Dinner was usually served family style at her long dining room table (or buffet style as the family grew larger) with pastitsi, spanikopita, dolmathes, ham, potatoes, turkey and gravy and her elaborate vegetable tray which was always served on a silver platter with each vegetable, cheese or olives in a lettuce leaf cup. Dessert was a must. Yiayia didn’t make cakes but ordered the best bakery delights (usually chocolate rum cake with pineapple filling) and made Greek pastries (baklava, kourambiedes and melomakarona) to go with the coffee. You never left Yiayia’s house hungry.

Anne helping dip the melomakarona in honey.

At the end of each meal, assorted members of the extended family would pop in to say a quick hello. In warm weather we would retreat to the backyard to watch the youngest members of the family run around on her gigantic lawn and in cold we would sit around the fire opening presents, playing puzzles and games or listening to the latest grandchild’s performance on her grand piano.

Ruly Ruth and Ruly Anne in concert at Yiayias.

Now that I have done some entertaining of my own, I have no idea how she kept up with such an aggressive entertaining schedule! I vividly remember Yiayia bustling around the kitchen and serving all the dishes. Her children and daughters in law often had to say, “Sit down, Yiayia. We have everything we need. Come eat with us.” I think she truly enjoyed hostessing. It did not seem to be a stress or a chore for her. She had a harder time being the guest and coming up with small talk.

Yiayia was the root that grounded our ever-branching family tree. There was a special spot in her heart for very young children and babies and she lamented to me late in her life that she felt sad that my children would probably not remember her.

Four of Yiayia's jewels, her grandchildren. Behind us is the yellow stove that generated so many delicious meals.

I am sad that Yiayia is not with us any more and I miss her terribly. I am thankful for her long life, her tremendous energy and the legacy she left. My last vivid memory of her is her sitting in the backyard of my parent’s home celebrating the second and third birthdays of her great-granddaughters. She was beautifully dressed and had on a wonderful sunhat and smiled as she took in the festivities. That is how I like to remember her.

Yiayia simply can’t be replaced. She was the product of a special time and place that will never exist again. I still can’t quite understand how someone so vibrant can be gone so quickly and I know for certain that if there is any way possible she is keeping tabs on all of us.

Ruly Ruth shares her memories of Yiayia below:

I will always remember Yiayia with open arms, a smile on her face, and being so happy and joyful to see us grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. We were her pride and joy. My 9.5-year-old son adored her! Which seems a little odd since sometimes young children are afraid or fearful of older people. He adored her from the first moment she held him! We have a famous photo of her and TJ both wearing Crocs!! As my husband said—what a product when you reach the young kids to the 90+ year old set! Wow! One winter, after going sledding on a local hill in Utah, we were going to return to my parents’ house to warm up when my son insisted we visit Yiayia for hot cocoa! And as always she happily obliged! I will miss her, and I know my son will too. Her care packages of carefully made and individually-wrapped Greek cookies—the koulourakia, my favorites the melomokarama. So delicious!! A lot of work—and we loved eating the fruits of the labor made by those amazing, amazing hands! And the handiwork! The knitted sweaters we have for each kiddo and myself—one I chose back in college that’s an Irish intricate long sweater which will look amazing over leggings this year.

If you have someone you are missing this holiday season and are having a hard time feeling thankful or joyous, know that you aren’t alone and that it is ok to feel a tinge of sadness in your celebrations. While Yiayia’s loss is a tough one, we know there are families with much more difficult losses to bear this year and our hearts go out to them.

Ruly Ruth shares:

Along with Veterans Day, we celebrate the Marine Corps Birthday Ball on the Marine Corps Birthday November 10th. It is quite the event with a ceremony that will bring anyone heart-felt pride and tears simultaneously. It’s a sight to behold! At this year’s Ball, the gift (sometimes a personalized wine glass or beer stein with the unit’s logo to which you are attached), this year was a commemorative coin with the name of a fallen warrior. One coin we received has the name of Corporal Kyle W. Wilks. With this name, you go to the website and enter the name and read about him and others.

If you need some suggestions for coping with the holidays after death of a loved one, the Office for Victims of Crime has a wonderful list of suggestions from survivors who have been there:

If you are trying to know what to say to a friend who has been through a loss, I don’t know if there are any “right” answers. Reaching out to people in grief, inviting them to your celebration and otherwise treating them “normally” rather than avoiding them is recommended. Here are some other great suggestions from blogger Lori Pederson.

Please feel free to share your Thanksgiving remembrances in the comments and wishing you and yours a Thanksgiving filled with peace.

(P.S.  Yiayia didn’t want her picture posted so you will just have to imagine her through her grandchildren.  She probably would have wanted it that way.)

Swinging from the pear tree in Yiayia's backyard. Yiayia took a lot of photos with heads cut off and fingers over the lens but this one she marked on the back was me.

Nov 242010

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Cream Cheese Filling from Martha Stewart's/Matt Lewis' recipe.

Pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving staple, is controversial at our house.  I love it and think it is creamy, sweet and delicious.  My husband abhors it and finds it slimy, disgusting, and strangely textured.  For years, I have tried different variations on pumpkin pie so that we can incorporate it in our Thanksgiving meal.

One year it was pumpkin cheesecake.  That was the year that I learned that cheesecake is a complicated dessert to make.  All of my mini cheesecakes fell in the center and looked sad and unappetizing.  They tasted OK but certainly nothing we would ever want to repeat.

This year, I learned about pumpkin whoopie pies from the Metrocurean blog. Could this be the answer to our pumpkin problems?  I reviewed a few recipes and decided to try Martha Stewart’s version from Matt Lewis of Baked Bakery.

Normally, I am a bit wary of trying recipes from real chefs.  I have horrible memories of trying to cook from a gourmet magazine as a teenager–spending hours in the kitchen only to have the dish turn out completely inedible and nothing remotely like the picture.

Fortunately, Martha’s recipe is pretty foolproof.  It came out looking quite a bit like the picture.  I was worried when the cookie batter was quite runny and drizzled it in puddles on the cookie sheet to bake.  Fortunately, the cookies came out of the oven puffed up, moist and soft and were relatively flat, which makes assembly into the whoopie pies easier.

My girls loved to eat the cookie tops plain, which, for my eldest was a major success in adding to her limited, picky diet.  The remaining cookies were glued together with cream cheese frosting middles (the leftover frosting was seen here in the Election Cakes). I thought they were delicious.  But the big test was seeing whether my pumpkin pie-hating husband would eat them.


He loved them and ate several.  This may be our new Thanksgiving dessert tradition.  I encourage you to try them.

P.S.  If you wanted a super-easy version of this recipe, you could try mixing a can of pumpkin pie filling with a box of spice cake mix for the cookies.  A friend brought cookies made from this recipe to a cookie exchange once and they were moist and delicious.