Pumpkin Chocolate Cupcakes with Spiced Cream Cheese Frosting

2015 Blog November-0577The beauty of having a perfect chocolate cake recipe, as I do, is that it’s always there in the back of your memory, ready for any holiday, any event, any Wednesday evening you really need a piece of cake. It’s always tender, it’s always moist, it tastes refreshingly of cocoa but is not overly sweet. It is easy to make – 45 minutes from empty bowl to tins hot out of the oven if you’re organized, and its recipe is easily halved and quartered for when you want a single layer, and when you just need a 6-inch cake for you and somebody you’re willing to go halfsies with right out of the cake tin.

2015 Blog November-05572015 Blog November-0560Because this recipe is so dependable, because it is so easy and so well loved I’ve learned the measurements by heart, I’ve basically come to the conclusion that it is magic. It’s delicious, it’s quick, it’s vegan (until you drape it in whipped cream), which also means it’s cheap. But most magically, it is easily modified in dozens of ways, and every time it seems to come out right. I’ve made it gluten-free, I’ve soaked it in liqueur, I’ve added coffee, I’ve used olive oil instead of vegetable oil, I’ve switched out the type of vinegar, I’ve turned it into cupcakes; somehow, it just always works.

2015 Blog November-05622015 Blog November-0563Here, in the ultimate experiment, I added an entire cup of pumpkin puree without adjusting any of the other ingredient values, and it STILL WORKED. That shouldn’t be possible. Pumpkin is so wet that dumping in such a healthy portion of it should require some tweaking. But because this cake is magic, it produced more than two dozen deeply dark, tender, moist cupcakes within an hour and a half.

2015 Blog November-05642015 Blog November-05662015 Blog November-0569Though I usually fill and slather this cake in an unapologetically thick layer of whipped cream, for cupcakes, I wanted to play with the subtle pumpkin flavor by spiking the frosting with the spices of pumpkin pie. Cream cheese frosting is a perennial favorite of mine, though for some reason I always forget about it when I’m not addressing a carrot cake. Here, though, it works perfectly: the tang of the cream cheese prevents the frosting from getting too sweet too fast, and it can hold up to the strong flavors of the spices that get whipped in.

2015 Blog November-0573Plus, bonus, cream cheese frosting is easy to pipe because it remains nice and stiff, which means you end up with professional looking cupcakes you can impress your coworkers or your Thanksgiving guests with. You know, if you feel like sharing.

2015 Blog November-0575

Pumpkin Chocolate Cupcakes with Spiced Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 28
60-90 minutes (plus at least 30 minutes cooling time for cupcakes)
For cake:
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
⅔ cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup unsweetened pumpkin puree (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
2 cups cold water
For frosting:
16 ounces (2 packages) plain, full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
4 ounces (8 tablespoons or 1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla
2-3 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cardamom
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ginger
  • Preheat the oven to 350F and spray or line a 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake wrappers. Set aside.
  • In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and cocoa powder. It turns a lovely pale pinkish color when the cocoa is fully integrated.
  • In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, measure out the vegetable oil and stir in the vinegar and the vanilla. Carefully add the pumpkin puree and whisk together. Add to the dry ingredients and use the stand mixer or an electric handheld mixer to combine – it will form a wet, clumpy mess.
  • With the mixer running on low, slowly add the 2 cups of cold water. As the batter loosens you’ll want to add no faster than a trickle lest the now suddenly deep, deep cocoa-brown batter splatters.
  • Once all the water is added, continue mixing until well combined – at least a minute. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl with a spatula to ensure no hidden pockets of dry ingredients.
  • When the batter is fully mixed, scoop ⅓ cup into each cavity of your prepared muffin tin. I use an ice cream scoop that holds ⅓ cup and has one of those trigger pieces that sweeps across and cleans out the scoop – I highly recommend this. It’s very convenient.
  • Bake for 18 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out with only a moist crumb or two. Cool in muffin tin for 5-10 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with remaining batter until all cupcakes are baked and cooled.
  • To make the frosting, drop the cream cheese into a large bowl and beat well with an electric handheld mixer or the whisk attachment on a stand mixer. When the cream cheese is looking fluffy, scrape down the sides, add the room temperature butter, and beat again until mixture is thick and fluffy. Scrape down the sides, add the vanilla, and beat once more.
  • Now, sift in the powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, beating well in between each addition. You will want to start with slow speed each time to avoid a powdered sugar cloud. Once you’ve hit the 2 cup mark, let the mixer run for 2-3 minutes until the frosting becomes very thick. Give it a taste to check for sweetness and texture. If it seems thick enough for your purposes, add the spices, beat to integrate fully, and you’re done (I found 2 cups was perfect in flavor and texture). If the frosting is not thick enough, add the remaining powdered sugar ½ cup at a time, beating well, for additional stiffness. Then add the spices, beat to integrate fully, and prepare to frost the cupcakes.
  • If you have a piping bag, fit it with a star shaped tip and use a rubber spatula to fill it halfway with frosting. If you don’t have a piping bag, cut the bottom corner off a gallon sized zip-top freezer bag and slide in a star shaped tip (or just leave it open for a less defined swirl of frosting). Half fill with frosting. Use your fingers to gently smoosh the frosting toward the bottom of the bag. Twist the top (empty) half of the bag around two or three times.
  • To frost the cupcakes, hold the filled half of the bag in your dominant hand and a cupcake in your other hand. Without touching the icing tip to the surface of the cupcake, squeeze the bag gently and move your hand in a clockwise circle, letting the frosting ooze out and create a curlicue of frosting on top of the cupcake. Repeat until all cupcakes are frosting, refilling the bag when needed. You’ll likely have some extra, which seems to me like a terribly good thing, and which apparently freezes quite well.
  • Refrigerate cupcakes until ready to serve – they keep just fine overnight (and, in fact, were still moist and tender into day three).

Thanksgiving Meatballs

2015 Blog November-0596I realize that it may be tantamount to sedition to suggest to most Americans that they consider having meatballs for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is sacred: though there might be ham, there MUST be turkey. Sometimes it is packed full of cornbread or sourdough stuffing; sometimes the stuffing gets baked separately and the turkey cavity is jammed with herbs and a half a lemon (that’s the way it usually goes in our house). There are potatoes of some sort – if you are my sister, they are always these chipotle mashed sweet potatoes, originally from Cooking Light. Gravy is less important to me than to some people – I realize there are secret recipes generations old, and then there’s that sludgy stuff that pours right out of a jar. As long as the turkey is moist, I tend not to fuss about the gravy. Cranberry sauce, however, is a must, and so are vegetables, though variety is much more acceptable here than in other parts of the meal. Later, if you can find a corner of room, there’s pumpkin pie, or perhaps pumpkin cheesecake, and maybe some sort of rum-drenched dessert drink.

2015 Blog November-05862015 Blog November-0584Given all that (are you hungry yet?), you might not want meatballs for Thanksgiving. But these are Thanksgiving IN a meatball. Everything – with perhaps the exception of the pumpkin pie – is accounted for: finely whirred onion and celery from the stuffing, soaked bread crumbs, gently sautéed herbs, even the occasional tart-sweet stab of a bit of dried cranberry. They get simmered in gravy that is lightly seasoned with rosemary and a few lemon slices, to keep it bright, and nestled tenderly in a bed of mashed potatoes. It’s all there. Even the eternal quandary that is Thanksgiving veg is factored in: a crisp tumble of fried brussels sprout leaves cascading over the top.

2015 Blog November-05812015 Blog November-0587The vegetable component here is inspired by several restaurants we’ve eaten at recently, which offer fried brussels leaves as an appetizer – a kind of alternative to a bowl of french fries or maybe, just maybe, an evolution of the ubiquitous kale chip. At first I was reluctant to pay $8.00 for a paper-lined dish of these crisp little things (oh Los Angeles), but the flavor – a toastiness that almost invokes sesame oil – and the salty goodness that makes me want to finish the whole bowl, usually wins me over. Besides, several experiments to perfect them for this dish have taught me that they are only deceptively pricey – the patience and time it takes to coax off individual leaves without damaging them makes it worth occasionally paying other people to do it.

2015 Blog November-0590Still, though, the crispy fried leaves add a really necessary textural component to this whole dish. The mashed potatoes are soft, the meatballs are moist and tender, the gravy is velvety; it needs a crunch. Even though it takes a while to produce enough leaves to be worth it, and even though the frying process itself is terrifying – the leaves have a high water content, so the oil fizzes up tremendously when you first add them – they are the perfect final garnish to the plate.

2015 Blog November-05952015 Blog November-0602I’m waxing ridiculous about the brussels sprouts, I know, so let me just say: the meatballs and the gravy they simmer in are delicious too. The vegetables inside keep things moist, and the hints of sweetness from the cranberries are a nice touch. I presume they would be tasty over noodles of some sort, or perhaps on a slider or crostini. But since this is about Thanksgiving, I couldn’t see deviating from the classic mashed potato. I’m not including a potato recipe here; you should make them however you like them. I will say, though, a crumble of goat cheese melted in at the last second is never a bad thing…

2015 Blog November-0603

Thanksgiving Meatballs
Makes 18-20 meatballs (about 2 tablespoons each)
60-90 minutes
1½ cups fresh bread crumbs (from 1-2 slices of bread)
1 cup whole milk or half and half
¼ cup grated yellow or white onion (about ⅓ of a large onion)
¼ cup grated celery (about 2 stalks of celery)
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh sage
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped dried cranberries
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound ground turkey, dark meat preferable
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
¼ cup dry white wine, optional
2 cups low-sodium turkey broth
2 inch sprig of fresh rosemary
3-4 thin slices of lemon
1½-2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups brussels sprout leaves
Additional salt and pepper to taste
Mashed potatoes, made your favorite way


  • To make the bread crumbs, whir the slices of bread in a food processor into small, fluffy crumbs. Combine these crumbs in a small bowl or 2-cup glass measuring cup with the milk or half and half, and let soak at least 10-15 minutes while you prep and cook the vegetables.
  • Add the onion and celery into the food processor (no need to wash it out in between; everything’s going to the same place!), and let run until the vegetables are very finely minced.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat and add the onions and celery. Sweat gently until the onion pieces are translucent and the celery is tender; 5-8 minutes. In the final minute, add the finely minced sage and thyme leaves. Turn off the heat, transfer cooked vegetables and herbs to a medium bowl, and let cool for about 10 minutes.
  • Once the vegetables have had a chance to cool a bit, add the parsley, chopped cranberries, pepper, and salt to the bowl. Gently squeeze out the bread crumbs that have been soaking in milk and add them as well; they don’t have to be squeezed dry, but ideally they should be no longer dripping. Add the turkey meat and use your fingertips or a fork to combine and evenly distribute all ingredients.
  • In the same skillet you used previously, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-low heat. While it warms, roll the meat mixture into balls about 2 tablespoons each. You should get 18-20 meatballs out of this quantity. As you roll each, place it on a clean plate.
  • When all meatballs are rolled, turn the heat under the skillet up to medium and gently add as many meatballs as will fit in a single layer, not touching each other. Brown for 2-3 minutes, then flip over and repeat once or twice more on the other “sides” of the meatball.
  • Once meatballs are browned on 2 or 3 sides, remove this first batch to a clean plate and repeat, until all meatballs are browned.
  • In the empty skillet, sprinkle the flour over the remaining fat and whisk into a golden bubbling sludge, then let cook 1-2 minutes. Add the dry white wine, if using, whisking immediately and constantly to integrate the flour evenly. When the wine is incorporated, slowly add the turkey broth, again whisking constantly, until no lumps remain.
  • Bring the liquid mixture to a simmer, whisking occasionally. Gently add the meatballs back in along with any liquid they have generated, clamp on a lid, and simmer for 15 minutes.
  • After 15 minutes, use a spoon or a pair of tongs to gently flip over each meatball. Add the sprig of rosemary and the lemon slices to the liquid in between the meatballs, then replace the lid and cook another 15 minutes.
  • During the cooking, prepare your mashed potatoes any way you like them.
  • To make the brussels sprouts, heat 1½-2 cups vegetable oil to 350F in a heavy, straight-sided pot. The weight is important because we want it to be stable. When it reaches 350F, carefully add the brussels sprout leaves. The oil will immediately bubble up furiously, so again, be careful.
  • Fry the leaves for 2-3 minutes, frequently agitating them with a skimmer or a kitchen spider. When a few tester leaves feel crisp, carefully skim them out onto a double layer of paper towels or a brown paper bag. Immediately sprinkle with salt and reserve until ready to serve. It is best to do these as close to the last minute as possible for heat and crispness.
  • To serve the whole dish, place a healthy serving of mashed potatoes into a shallow bowl. Spread them out a bit to form a well in the center. Spoon in a few tablespoons of the meatball gravy, then nestle in the meatballs – I recommend 4-5 per person. Add a bit more gravy over the top if desired, and shower with a crisp handful of fried brussels sprout leaves.

Almond Raisin Roasted Cauliflower

2015 Blog September-0517This week, Los Angeles finally had some mercy on us and allowed the temperatures to drop just a bit. My building at work turned off the air conditioning in our offices. I didn’t change into shorts immediately upon getting home. In fact, I actually – and you might be shocked here, so get ready for it – I actually put on a sweatshirt and wore it quite comfortably for several hours. I dug my bedroom slippers out from the dust-bunny-laden corner of the closet and slid grateful, almost chilly, feet into their old embrace.

2015 Blog September-0501Of course, since this relief might not last very long, I did the only sensible thing I could, which was to buy a head of cauliflower and shove it into a high-temperature oven. Cauliflower and I were never friends in childhood, but Mark Bittman changed all that for me by offering a high-heat roast, rather than a steam or a boil, as the plan of attack. In fact at this point, I think N. and I would happily eat a tray of roasted broccoli and cauliflower three or four nights a week, without much to accompany them.

2015 Blog September-0502On occasion, though, a bit of accompaniment is nice. Though my typical procedure is just salt, pepper, and plenty of olive oil, I wanted to give the cauliflower some friends to play with as it bronzed slowly over the flames. The vegetable itself has such a mild flavor that it can easily go in a sweet or a savory direction, and I decided I wanted to play with these borders. Adopting a vaguely Mediterranean direction, after the first blast of roasting I scattered a handful each of golden raisins and sliced almonds over the cauliflower. Back it went just long enough for the florets to brown and the almonds to toast, but not quite long enough to burn the nuts or the delicate raisins. On the contrary, the raisins plump up a bit as they suck in some of the oil and moisture released from the cauliflower. A quick shower of chopped parsley as the tray leaves the oven, and the dish is ready.

2015 Blog September-0506The flavors here are perfect, and it’s hard to describe perfection, but my unexpected favorite thing about this dish was the play of textures. The cauliflower gains an almost-crisp crust on its exterior, but the inside is meltingly soft in an entirely pleasant way. The raisins don’t stay plump for long after exiting the oven, but they provide a subtle chewiness I enjoy, and the almonds are a perfect crunch.

2015 Blog September-0509I usually try to give you pairing suggestions, and while I think this would be good with everything from turkey to lamb, I feel no shame in admitting that, since I was dining solo, I just ate the whole tray and called it a night.

2015 Blog September-0511

Almond Raisin Roasted Cauliflower
Serves 2-3 as a side, 1 as a main
45-50 minutes, mostly unattended
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 medium head of cauliflower
generous ⅓ cup golden raisins
generous ⅓ cup sliced untoasted almonds
¼ cup roughly chopped fresh parsley


  • Preheat the oven to 450F with a foil-lined 9×13 inch baking tray inside. We want to preheat the cooking surface as well as the oven to start the cooking process immediately.
  • While the oven heats, whisk together the olive oil, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Cut the cauliflower into medium florets (a large bite-size) and toss in the seasoned oil for even coating.
  • Carefully remove the preheated baking tray from the oven and dump on the oiled florets, arranging them in a single layer. Return to the oven and roast for 20 minutes, during which time you can assemble and prep the remaining ingredients.
  • After 20 minutes, take the tray out of the oven and, using tongs, flip over the florets. Yes, each one. Yes, it’s tedious, but it will make for a better end product. Push them back into the oven and roast for another 10 minutes.
  • Remove the tray from the oven again and scatter the raisins and then the almonds over the cauliflower. This protects the raisins a bit and ensures the almonds toast nicely. Back into the oven once more for a final 10 minutes, then remove, scatter with chopped parsley, and serve hot or warm.



Spiced Fried Coconut Rice and Plantains

2015 Blog September-0542As I’m sure will come as no surprise to you, I’ve always been very interested in food in books. But not food books, so to speak, just food that appears in stories. The kind I like is not food that is instrumental to or driving the story; not food that makes the plot twist and turn. I’m more fond of food that is incidental. Food that brings characters together and lets them pause for a moment. Food that, perhaps, the author got too carried away with describing (I’m looking at you, Brian Jacques).

2015 Blog September-0524The inspiration for this dish is something I’ve thought about and forgotten about on and off since I was in my early teens. Roald Dahl, easily my first author crush, has been on my bookshelf since I was five or six years old. But it wasn’t until I was in middle school that I discovered his two autobiographical books Boy and Going Solo. In the latter, as he relates his time as an RAF pilot, he describes a dish cooked for him by a local Sergeant outside of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania:

There was a 44-gallon drum of drinking water in one of the trucks and everyone helped himself. Then the Sergeant made a fire out of sticks and began cooking supper for his men. He was making rice in an enormous pot, and while the rice was boiling he took from the truck a great stem of bananas and started snapping them off the stem one by one and peeling them and slicing them up and dropping the slices into the pot of rice . . . It was absolutely delicious. The rice was unhusked and brown and the grains did not stick together. The slices of banana were hot and sweet and in some way they oiled the rice, as butter would. It was the best rice dish I had ever tasted and I ate it all and felt good and forgot about the Germans. (Dahl 60-61)

I had never been particularly drawn to brown rice or to bananas, but the description of the way the bananas made the rice buttery and slick appealed deeply to me.

2015 Blog September-0532Here, I’ve taken the Sergeant’s basic ingredients and added a bit of my own flair. Impatient, I used white rice rather than brown, but chose basmati to echo the idea that the grains remained separate. A recent return of plantains to my grocery store determined the “banana” component, and since I can’t bring myself to cook plantains any other way besides frying them in thick slices, then smashing them down and frying again in an homage to tostones, I decided the bananas in my version would end up layered atop the rice, not cooked with it.

2015 Blog September-0522Since simple rice and bananas, though it sounded comforting and fulfilling in theory, might end up a bit boring in execution, I decided to cook the rice in coconut milk and then stir-fry it with some spices. This would take care of the “oiled” component from Dahl’s dinner that might otherwise go missing. A sprinkle of cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice would finish the dish.

2015 Blog September-0529Though my final dish was quite different from Dahl’s, my reaction was similar. I ate it all, I felt good, and I could see why Dahl told the Sergeant “You should open a restaurant and become rich” when he finished his plate (61). The plantains, though sweet by nature, teeter in the savory realm with a generous pinch of salt and a spare dusting of cayenne pepper. The rice recalls sweetness with the coconut milk and cinnamon, but a dose of coriander and a bay leaf hold it back from the edge of becoming a dessert rice dish.

2015 Blog September-0537A note about my plantains: though I’ve called this an “homage to tostones,” my results are only loosely similar. Real tostones use green plantains, cut thin slices, and after frying, smashing, and frying again, the resulting golden-brown coins are crisp and flat and something like the love child of bananas and potato chips. My fried plantains use a yellow plantain – not yet tremendously soft, but certainly not the hard, starchy green variety most commonly used for the dish. I shallow fry rather than deep-frying the slices, but the process of frying lightly to cook through, then smashing, then frying again to achieve a bronzed exterior remains the same. Be sure to salt them when they are hot to keep them savory.

2015 Blog September-0538

Spiced Fried Coconut Rice and Plantains
Serves 2
About 1½ hours (1 hour of resting time)
1 cup long-grain rice, such as jasmine or basmati
2 cups coconut milk (not coconut cream) (you could also use water, or vegetable or chicken broth)
¼ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
1 dried bay leaf
3 tablespoons coconut oil (you could also use vegetable oil)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon coriander
1 large yellow plantain (it should have minimal black streaks and feel medium firm)
3 tablespoons coconut oil (you could also use vegetable oil)
salt for sprinkling
cayenne pepper for sprinkling
2-3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
squeeze of lime juice


  • In a medium pot, stir together the rice, coconut milk, salt, and pepper. Add the bay leaf and bring to a boil. Stir once, reduce heat, and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until coconut milk is absorbed and rice is tender. Let sit with the lid on for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork and let cool for about 1 hour. This helps the grains stay separate and not get gummy when fried.
  • While rice is cooling, prepare and cook the plantain. Peel the plantain and cut it into ½ inch slices. Heat 3 tablespoons coconut oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the plantain slices in a single layer and fry until soft: 1-2 minutes per side. Remove to a paper towel lined plate or cutting board.
  • Place another layer of paper towels on top of the lightly fried plantain slices. Using a potato masher or a wide spatula, gently flatten the plantain slices to around ¼ inch thick. Turn up the heat under the skillet to medium-high and return the flattened slices to the oil. They may stick a bit to the paper towel: be gentle but firm as you peel them away!
  • Fry the plantain slices again in the hot coconut oil until a crisp golden crust forms – about 2 minutes. Flip and fry again for another 2 minutes, or until golden on both sides. Remove to a fresh layer of paper towels and immediately sprinkle with salt and cayenne pepper.
  • Turn the heat down to medium and spoon in the remaining 3 tablespoons coconut oil. Add the cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander and let them sizzle for 30-45 seconds, just until their aromas start to mingle. Then, remove the bay leaf from the cooled rice and dump the rice in all at once.
  • Mix frantically to incorporate the spices, then let the rice sit undisturbed for 3-4 minutes to pick up a bit of a crust. Flip around with a spatula and fry another 2-3 minutes for even toasting.
  • To serve, mound about a cup of rice in the center of a shallow bowl. Layer half the slices of plantain on top, then sprinkle with chopped cilantro and squeeze on a few drops of lime juice. Repeat for the second diner, and serve immediately.

Beef Stroganoff Meatballs

2015 Blog October-0554These are the meatballs that started it all. On a whim, in a post I wrote to publicize Shauna’s (at the time) most recent cookbook, I mentioned off-hand the idea of roasting the mushrooms in the Russian classic beef stroganoff – a savory stew of long-cooked beef with onions and mushrooms, often draped over egg noodles or mashed potatoes.

2015 Blog October-05462015 Blog October-0548Somehow, as it simmered in my head, the concept of roasted mushrooms, well, mushroomed, and turned instead into adapting the whole dish into a meatball. Onions and mushrooms, sautéed down in butter until tender and moist, studding a beef meatball floating in a beefy wine sauce, finished with a generous dollop of sour cream. It sounded exactly right, and though a few ingredients added themselves to the mix – thyme in the meatballs, a bay leaf in the sauce and a sprinkling of fresh herbs of the top – they stayed in basically the same form as the year stretched on. From there, in fact, they launched the whole meatball project: if beef stroganoff could be remade in meatball form, why couldn’t other classic dishes? And if I could come up with enough of those, I was set with a project for the year. It became a plan.

2015 Blog October-05492015 Blog October-0551As ideas came thick and fast, and the seasons grew warmer, stroganoff was put off month after month. Finally, in a rare cool weekend, I was able to return to the idea and let me tell you, it was a worthy origin story. My sauce broke, but yours won’t, because you will start with your sour cream at room temperature and add it slooooowly with the heat off, won’t you? And your meatballs will be tender and moist, after simmering but not boiling in the rich, slightly thickened sauce. And though you can certainly serve these as we did, piled atop pan-toasted gnocchi, a pillow of sour cream mashed potatoes or a bowl of egg noodles would be equally welcome.

2015 Blog October-0552

Beef Stroganoff Meatballs
Makes 24-28 tablespoon sized meatballs
45-60 minutes, very approximately
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup minced white onions
1 cup minced mushrooms (I like crimini)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 pound ground beef, preferably 85% lean / 15% fat (any leaner and the meatballs run the risk of being dry)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
1 egg
1 cup red wine
2 cups low-sodium beef broth
1 bay leaf
¾ cup full-fat sour cream, at room temperature
1-2 tablespoons each minced dill and parsley, to garnish
pan-fried gnocchi, egg noodles, or mashed potatoes, to serve


  • In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil with the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onions and stir once, then let cook gently while you prepare the mushrooms.
  • Add mushrooms, ¼ teaspoon pepper, and the thyme to the gently cooking onions and raise the heat to medium, then cook, stirring frequently, until tender and lightly browned – around 5-8 minutes. Let cool.
  • In a medium glass bowl, combine ground beef, salt, mustard, egg, and the cooled mushrooms and onions. Use your fingertips (preferable) or a spatula to lightly bring everything together; we are aiming for a mixture in which the aromatics and seasonings are evenly distributed.
  • In the same skillet you used for the onions and mushrooms, heat a few drops of olive oil over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add a teaspoon-sized patty of the meat mixture and cook on both sides until done. Taste for seasoning and adjust for the rest of the mixture, if needed.
  • Using moistened hands, roll tablespoons of the meat mixture into tight but tender spheres, setting each on a plate until all are rolled. In the same large skillet, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the meatballs in a single layer, not touching each other (this will probably take at least two batches). Cook until browned on all sides (2-3 minutes per side), then set aside on a clean plate. Repeat until all meatballs are browned.
  • When all meatballs are browned and set aside, add the red wine all at once and use a wooden spoon or spatula to loosen the browned bits from the bottom. This is called fond, and it contains a lot of flavor. Add the beef broth and the bay leaf, and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let the broth and wine mixture simmer for 10 minutes.
  • Carefully add the browned meatballs back into the liquid and return to a simmer, letting the meatballs roll in their broth and wine bath for 10 minutes. At this point, it would be wise to get the starch component ready as well.
  • When the meatballs are cooked through, dish them out with a slotted spoon to a temporary storage plate. Turn off the heat and slowly whisk in the sour cream ¼ cup at a time. Don’t add it all right away, and by all means don’t add it straight out of the refrigerator – this will cause it to turn grainy and look curdled (though it will still taste okay). Slow incorporation is key.
  • Once sour cream is fully incorporated, return skillet to low heat, add the meatballs back in once more, and cook just until sauce and meatballs are warmed through.
  • To serve, pile meatballs with a healthy helping of sauce atop pan-fried gnocchi, mashed potatoes, or egg noodles, and garnish with a sprinkle of fresh dill and parsley.

Apple Cheddar Waffles

2015 Blog September-0463Although I object to the idea of swapping all of your usual décor with pumpkins and corncobs the moment calendars proclaim it’s the first day of fall, by the time mid-October rolls around I’m both cool with the harvest theme and starting to crave richer, belly-warming food. I have such ideas about bread, and stews, and short-ribs, and roasted everything…

2015 Blog September-04502015 Blog September-04522015 Blog September-0455Los Angeles is making this hard lately. With temperatures in the 90s during two of the past three weekends, it’s difficult to convince myself to cook anything, much less wax poetic about its warming spices and satisfying heartiness. My bedroom feels like the inside of a dryer. I might have fleeting dreams about fluffy, toasty, steaming biscuits mounded with chili, but all I can truly imagine consuming is a series of popsicles and frozen grapes.

2015 Blog September-04562015 Blog September-0457But I will say, if it’s cool enough where you are that the thought of using heating implements in your kitchen doesn’t throw you into depression, you should make these waffles immediately. I first made them a month or so ago when it didn’t feel like Dante might mistake our kitchen for one of the circles of Hell. They were so good – fluffy and light from their yeasted batter, crisp and burnished with crackling edges of melted cheese – that it was only a week or two before we had to make them again. Like the grilled cheese sandwiches I pushed on you last year, they pull from the classic combination of cheddar cheese and apple pie. A wedge of salivation-inducing cheese against the sweet tartness of apple desserts is a worthy experiment in many cases, and here, soft, tender apple bits and pockets of melted cheese folded into a crisp waffle drowning in maple syrup is a combination you’re going to want to make all season, if the seasons would ever straighten themselves out. And if you simply aren’t enthused by a recipe that advertises itself with a pile of apples and sharp-as-you-can-get cheddar cheese, I’m not sure we can stay friends.

2015 Blog September-0467These start from my basic yeasted beer batter waffles recipe, which is adapted from King Arthur Flour. You can use milk instead of beer if you must, but between the yeast and the heat most of the alcohol is processed out, and the slightly bitter flavor of dark beer is such a welcome addition, balancing the rich cheese and tart apples. The first time I made these I was concerned about the apple pieces cooking all the way through in the short time they are enfolded in the waffle iron, but I needn’t have worried. They are in small enough pieces that they will cook. I like to leave the skins on for extra tartness, but you can peel them first if you prefer. Apples and cheese play well in both sweet and savory directions, so while I think a glug of maple syrup – we like to warm it up with a pinch of red pepper flakes for a little kick – makes these a complete meal, I could also see them providing a perfect raft for a moist thigh of roasted or fried chicken, or even piled with a fresh kale salad studded with walnuts and dried cherries. 2015 Blog September-0464

Apple Cheddar Waffles
Loosely adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes about six 7-inch waffles
2-2½ hours (45 minutes active time)
1½ cups (12 ounces) lukewarm dark beer, such as a stout or a porter
1½ teaspoons active dry yeast
3 tablespoons maple syrup
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) melted butter, cooled
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 green apple, diced into ¼ inch-½ inch chunks (1⅓ – 1½ cups, approximately)
1 generous cup grated sharp or extra sharp cheddar cheese


  • In a 2-cup glass measuring cup, or a small microwave safe bowl, heat the beer until just warm to the touch. Add yeast and let them mingle for 5-10 minutes. The yeast will foam up considerably, thanks to the extra sugars and yeast already in the beer.
  • While the yeast proofs, whisk together the cooled melted butter, the maple syrup, the salt, and the eggs in a large bowl. Be sure there’s room for the batter to expand.
  • Add the beer and yeast mixture and whisk to combine, then add the flour 1 cup at a time, whisking to combine thoroughly. Switch to a rubber spatula and fold in the apple chunks and the cheese. Stir well, as the cheese may want to stick together; we want it evenly incorporated.
  • Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it on the counter for 1½-2 hours (how fast it rises and bubbles will depend on how warm your kitchen is, but longer rise = deeper flavor).  The mixture will develop lethargic and then more energetic bubbles, and begin to smell quite bready.
  • Once it has had a chance to rise and is covered with a near-consistent layer of bubbles, either stow in the refrigerator overnight, or preheat your waffle iron!
  • Drop the batter in generous ⅔ cup batches onto a preheated, greased waffle iron (or whatever capacity your iron can handle). Close the lid and cook for the recommended amount of time, or until the waffle is crisp on the outside and deeply golden, with dark crisp cheese lace protruding. Ours took about 7 minutes per waffle. (If you refrigerated your batter for a few hours or overnight, be sure to bring it back up to room temperature before cooking)
  • Serve hot with your choice of sweet pourable topping. We like maple syrup warmed with a pinch of red chili flakes in it, for a little kick. If you need to keep the waffles warm, stow them on a wire rack over a baking sheet in a 250F oven until you are ready to eat.