As I’m sure most of you, I grew up with the occasional packaged cupcake treat in my lunchbox.  Whether it was Little Debbie’s or Hostess, that chocolaty cupcake with its white squiggle and creamy surprise inside was a lunchtime treat.  Or if you were lucky enough to have a Mom who enjoyed baking, you probably had one of Mom’s yummy, little cakes for your lunchtime dessert.  Cupcakes were child-sized, sweet desserts, which, for the most part, were served only at birthday parties and sold at school bake sales.

Somewhere along the line though that all changed.  I believe it was in 2007 when Oprah waved her magic wand and swooned over the single-serving, glamorous little cakes being sold by Williams Sonoma, adding them to her much sought-after “O” list of ‘favorite things’.  The homey cupcake quickly became one of the trendy foods. The trendy food title was then permanently cemented when Carrie Bradshaw and her girlfriends indulged in these miniature, buttercream topped cakes on an episode of the cultural phenomenon Sex in the City.  Boom!  All of a sudden a new industry was born.  What were once lunchbox treats were now sought-after designer desserts.  Specialized cupcake bakeries sprang up all over the country.  The Food Network even created an entire baking competition series around them, “Cupcake Wars”.

If you are interested in the history of everyday things, as I am, you may have read about cupcakes being invented here in the U.S. in the late 1800s.  Well, sorry to disappoint, but cupcakes have been around a lot longer than that.  There are actually two schools of thought.  One is that these small, single serving cakes, were derived from the very popular, single-serving mince pies so popular in England in the 18th century.  The mince pies  were baked in miniature, sculpted tin molds and were served displayed on a platter in an artfully-shaped pattern.

Queen’s cakes, spiced pound cakes with currants, were also quite popular.  As the aristocracy tired of  miniature mince pies, they turned to cakes.  Chefs began using the tin molds, or “patty pans”, from baking mince pies to baking Queen’s cakes.   Whether baked in these individual pans or cut out using them, these miniature, iced cakes would also be presented on a platter, forming a variety of elaborate patterns.

Having been made by a craftsman or tinsmith, a set of these miniature mince pie or cake molds would have been very expensive … something the middle and lower classes would never have been able to afford.

A very romantic, but probably unlikely theory, suggests that the baker or head chef would occasionally hold out a little batter from the large lavish cake he was preparing for the Lord of the Manor’s evening dinner, to give a bit of a treat to the staff.  Certainly, not enough for an entire cake, but enough perhaps for a few single servings.  After the aristocracy enjoyed their lavishly decorated dessert cake, the staff downstairs could look forward to enjoying the leftover cake batter, baked in earthenware tea ‘cups’.

The very popular, early 19th century British cookbook author, Maria Rundell, actually suggested baking cakes in ‘little tins, tea-cups or saucers’.  In her book, A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy and Adapted to the Use of Private Families. By a Lady, Mrs. Rundell suggests two ways for baking these miniature cakes “… butter little tins, tea-cups, or saucers, and bake the batter in, filling only half.  Sift a little fine sugar over just as you put into the oven.” or “… butter small patty pans, half fill, and bake twenty minutes in a quick oven.”  [A New System of Domestic Cookery. Maria Rundell, 1808].  It seems to me using “buttered tea cups” would certainly make something called a ‘cup cake’.

The second school of thought for the origin of “cup cakes” is that name for the individual cakes came from the measurement of ingredients required to bake a cake.  Prior to this, measurements were by weight … now they were by volume or “cup”.  These cakes became known as number cakes, or 1-2-3-4 cakes because the easy-to-remember recipe called for:  one cup of butter, two cups of sugar, three cups of flour, and four eggs.  I’m not sure how this simple recipe became associated with individual servings of cakes baked in cups.  For that reason, and because in Great Britain baking is still measured by weight, I’m going along with the first belief.

Wall Street and the Huffington Post report that the “cupcake craze” is over.  But, I’m not convinced.  You can’t go into a shopping district or market place without seeing one, perhaps two, specialized cupcake bakeries.  Even the bakery departments in supermarkets have upgraded their grocery store bakes, selling delectable little treats, individually or prepackaged, in tiny ‘one bites’ up to massive ‘two-handers’.  Every season and holiday now has a festive cupcake specifically decorated for that event.

What once was a simple, little lunchbox treat has grown into a cottage industry.  Customers patiently line up at cupcake food trucks anxious to try some of the creative, and occasionally unusual, flavors which seem to be a very popular trend.  No longer are we satisfied with vanilla.  Now it has to be peanut butter fudge, lemon blueberry ripple, salted caramel apple, banana toffee crunch …. and more.

Maybe Wall Street is right and the frosting has fallen off some of the top cupcake chains, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t become a child again at the irresistible offering of a cupcake.  For me though, there will never be anything better than that little chocolaty treat with the white squiggle on top and the surprise inside!

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References:  Researching Food, Revolvy, Cupcakes, The Atlantic, Food Timeline


In Great Britain, Tuesday is Pancake Day and time for the Great Pancake Race!  All across the country, villages and small towns will be celebrating their Shrove Tuesday by flipping pancakes!

Tuesday is known as Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday.  In French, this day translates to a name I’m sure everyone is more familiar with … “Mardi Gras“.  What day am I talking about?  Yes, the day before Lent.  The day when, as a Christian, you can celebrate and feast on absolutely anything you want, in any quantity you want, because, beginning Wednesday, you must fast.

Wednesday is the beginning of the solemn Lenten season, a time of penance and renewal before Easter.  Sunday starts the three-day celebration period before Lent, which is commonly known as Mardi Gras or Carnival.  In medieval times it was known as “Shrovetide“, with the final day called Shrove Tuesday.  (The name ‘shrove’ comes from ‘shrive’, which refers to the ritual of confessing sins.)

How do pancakes and races fit into all this?  Again, during this Lenten period, fasting was strictly adhered to.  Rich, fatty foods such as meat and fish, sugar, eggs and dairy were prohibited during this solemn time.  For the poor and middle class, food was precious and they did not want to waste a bit.  What dish could they make to use up all these ingredients?  Pancakes.  This humble dish which used all the household’s fat, eggs, milk and sugar ultimately became the symbol of Shrove Tuesday.

At one time, Shrove Tuesday was a very important religious day in Great Britain.  It was a national holiday, a mini Mardi Gras, a time for celebration.  During this time, many events would take place … from football games to cock fighting to skipping rope contests.  But precisely at 11:00am, the village church would ring a bell as a reminder to the housewives that it was time to prepare the pancake batter.  After which, the church would then ring a ‘Shriving Bell’ to call the people to church for the confession of their sins.

But pancake racing?  Apparently, in 1445, in the village of Olney, or so the legend goes, a woman heard the ‘Shriving Bell’ while she was in the middle of making her pancakes.  Not wanting to stop for fear she would burn her pancakes, and still in her kerchief and apron, she ran to the church clutching her frying pan and flipping her pancake.  From that day on, every year, all of Britain celebrates Shrove Tuesday by honoring this woman and her pancake-making prowess by conducing “pancake races”.  The Olney Pancake Race is now world famous.

Although it is no longer a holiday, the bell is still rung today in villages across England and Shrove Tuesday celebrations are everywhere.  If you’d like to enter the now famous Olney race, the rules are very strict.  The race starts promptly at 11:55 am.  Bring your skillet.  Competitors have to be local housewives and must wear an apron and a hat or scarf.  The pancake flippers start at the market place in Olney and race to the Church of St. Peter, flipping their pancakes along the way.

If you don’t live in Olney, don’t be concerned, pancake races are held in most villages across the country.  You’ll see not only housewives, but school children, clerks, clergy and even professionally-dressed businessmen in aprons.  The object of the race is to rundown the street, carrying a frying pan with a hot, cooked pancake in it and flip the pancake at least three times as you run.  The first one to cross the finish line, and serve the pancake to the bellringer is the winner.

Whether you participate in a pancake race or not, I hope on Tuesday you at least uphold this fun tradition and fill your belly with rich, sweet, delicous pancakes!

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References:  This is Church, Historic UK, Wikipedia, Olney Pancake Race, Project Britain

CHAI … it’s sordid beginnings

In many languages “cha” or “chai” is the word for tea.  Chai, or Masala tea as it is called in India, is that milky, spicy, sweet, hot beverage we’ve all come to love.  Knowing the humble origins of chai, I’m amazed when I go to stores like Home Goods or TJ Maxx or even Ocean State Job Lot to see ‘chai‘ in shelf-stable packages, pre-made and ready to drink.  Actually I shouldn’t be surprised at all.  As much as we might love this spicy beverage, we’ve become a country in which we are so busy, we don’t have time to sit, relax and enjoy the process of … making chai, baking bread, growing herbs .  I’m one of those people, however, who tries to make time for it all.

I find the story of how Chai began quite fascinating, because it tells the story of tea … with all its grit, espionage, smuggling and deceit.  Chai has one of those sordid origins where it was bred out of necessity, much like soul food.  People had to eat (or in this case, drink) what was available.  If they didn’t they went hungry, and in most cases, they would die.

Let’s start at the very beginning.  It was 1848 and the East India Company had lost its monopoly on the China tea trade.  The Chinese were resentful that Britain attempted to addict their entire nation to opium and refused to do business with them.  The whole of Great Britain was now demanding “tea” and It was imperative that the British government establish its own independent tea supply.  But where and how?

Among botanist Robert Fortune’s tasks in China was to learn the procedure for manufacturing tea, as shown in this 18th century tea plantation. (The Granger Collection, New York)

A Scotsman by the name of Robert Fortune, curator and botanist of the Royal Horticultural Society, was asked by the East India Company to go on a “tea-discovery” mission to China.  Little did Fortune know that he was about to become an international man of espionage.  For three years, disguised as a Mandarin, Fortune visited the most famous tea districts, kept meticulous notes on the soil, the pruning, plucking and manufacturing process, and systematically collected seeds and plants.  By 1851, Fortune had amassed such knowledge, and plants, that he filled four vessels sailing from Hong Kong to Calcutta with thousands of plants, seedlings and had hired a team of experienced Chinese tea workers.

While Robert Fortune was busy collecting specimens, Robert Bruce, a fellow Scotsman, was meeting with one of the chiefs of the Singpho tribe in Assam, India.  The Singpho tribe, as the Chinese and other tribes in Southeast Asia, had also been making tea for centuries.   A tea committee was immediately formed to explore the possibilities of growing tea in this Assam region, which lies just to the west of China.

And then the takeover began.  Britain appeared to align themselves with the tribes, but their intent was to take over this territory.  They began by moving into this area and stripping the tribal people of their land, and then increasing the land tax to the point where the Assamese were unable to pay it.  This forced the Assamese to work clearing their own swampy, mosquito-laden land for the future tea gardens of their new British land “lords”.

These indigenous people had no experience laboring in this manner, and under deplorable working conditions.  The  British viewed them as “lazy, indolent and miserable”.  As a result, the British began “importing” labor from other parts of India. This “importing” of labor was, in fact, slavery.  Recruiting agents were sent into rural areas and promised a good wage and better life to men, women and children … ‘recruits’ who willing to immigrate to Assam.  When they had enough ‘recruits’ from one area, they loaded them onto overcrowded boats with appalling conditions for the six- to eight-week trip up the Brahmaputra River.  Many of the men, women and children, or ‘coolies’ as they were called (the term ‘coolie’ is believed to originate from the Tamil word for wages, ‘kuli’), died from cholera, dysentery, malaria or typhoid fever.  The ones who did survive were put to work no matter how sick, hungry or tired.  They were managed with whips, lived in pitiful huts, were chronically ill and malnourished, and unable to escape.

Most often the only source of nourishment for the ‘coolies’ was rice and tea.  No, not a good quality tea, but tea made from the dregs of the pluckings, infused with some milk for nourishment, sugar for energy, and spices to cover up the bad taste.   As a result, coolies suffered a very high mortality rate.  Between 1863 and 1866 half of the 84,000 laborers brought into this area died.  As I said, the history of “tea” and this now-beloved drink isn’t the sweetest tale.  Many thousands upon thousands of people died from malnourishment, disease and mistreatment.

Born out of necessity, today “chai” is the national drink of India. From sipping chai in someone’s home, while making a purchase in a shop, at a train station, or on a street corner, you can’t visit India without experiencing this unique culture.   Chaiwallahs are on every street corner in every village and town, ready to serve you a small cup or glass of this wonderful beverage.  Each may have their own special recipe or preparation style, but rest assured, each is as delicious as the next.

Everywhere in India there are chaiwallahs on the street with large kettles selling their spicy tea steeped with boiled milk and sugar. Because of the stiff competition between chaiwallahs, each tries to develop a unique style.

While specific recipes can vary, the black tea is always brewed with a blend of spices, generally cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, ginger, and cloves, with the addition of milk and sugar or honey.  In the U.S., some folks steep their tea together with milk, spices and sweetener. Others steep the tea and spices together, then add the milk and sweetener. A third group steeps the tea, stirs in the sweetener, and enjoys it without milk. It’s your choice.

We enjoy ours best steeped in a saucepan for 10 minutes or more with equal parts water and milk and one teaspoon of tea, spices and sugar for every 8 ounces of liquid.  Milk may burn if the heat is too high, so steep the heat at a medium temperature for about 10 to 15 minutes. After steeping, strain into a pot, and enjoy.

Yes, making it yourself does take about 15 minutes or more, and you can certainly buy prepared chai in bottles or packages, or even dry chai mixes, but taking those 15 minutes is so worthwhile.  And, if you make too much, just put it into the refrigerator and enjoy it cold the next day, over ice, or reheat it.  In the summertime, I love to make chai shakes … with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the blender.  Try it.  It’s absolutely delicious!!

I may occasionally order a chai (notice I didn’t say “chai latté”), in a café, but I really enjoy making it at home.  The aroma of those comforting spices steeping in that dark, rich tea just relaxes the senses and puts me in that “happy” place.

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References:  TEA by Roy Moxham, The Heritage of Indian Tea by D.K. Taknet, For All The Tea in China by Sarah Rose, Academia, Teatulia, Smithsonian


The “Teddy” Bear

I’m always curious about the origins of those things we hold dear.  One of those “things” that has always puzzled me is the ‘teddy bear’.  Where did our love for this small, stuffed, fuzzy animal toy come from?  Why the bear?   How did it get its name and how did it become the most popular, international cuddly toy ever sold?  For collectors, a vintage teddy bear can be worth more than $2 million!!  I have quite a few ‘teddies’ with which I would never dream of parting, but I doubt any of them have anything but a sentimental value.

Let’s start at the beginning and examine where the affection for stuffed animals as children’s toys came from.  Surprisingly, these cuddly, fuzzy replicas of animals originated in ancient times from a form of taxidermy.  Although the majority of animal skins were tanned and used for clothing, hunters have always taken great pride in preserving their kills.  Over time, taxidermists, as they became known, began to develop their skills, from just tanning the skins, to keeping the entire animal as intact as possible.  By the early 1800s, hunters began bringing their trophies to upholstery shops where a form of taxidermy took place, as upholsterers would actually sew up the animal skins and “stuff” them with rags and cotton.  Exotic “stuffed animals” became a hugely popular attraction and grew into quite a successful commercial venture, from traveling road shows to museum collections.  Not surprisingly, children became very attracted to these lifelike hunting trophies.  Observant entrepreneurs realized they could create a business producing toy “stuffed animals” just for children, and production for these adorable creatures began.

In 1897 in Germany, Margarete Steiff, was using techniques that she had learned from the upholstery industry, and began a small business creating soft, plush animal toys.  Richard, Margarete’s nephew, and a student at the School of Arts and Crafts in Stuttgart, was eager to help his aunt’s business and went looking for an idea for a new animal.  An American circus was touring through their city and, among the many animals on display, were performing bears.  Richard was fascinated by these lumbering creatures and, after the circus left, he began going to the zoo each day just to observe and sketch the bears.

Richard Steiff with his bear

Richard decided he would make a toy bear, but not just any stuffed bear, his would be jointed, similar to dolls and have the ability to stand up … and it would be made with fine mohair from goats.   Richard came up with a prototype … code name “Steiff Bär 55 PB” (“Bär” is German for “bear”, 55 = the bear’s height in centimetres; P = Plusch, plush; and B = beweglich, moveable limbs).

This fuzzy, mohair bear with its jointed limbs and brown eyes debuted at the German toy fair in 1903 where a buyer for a U.S. toy company not only bought all 100 bears, he placed an order for 3,000 more.  The next year, the Steiffs exhibited at the St. Louis World and sold 12,000 bears, receiving the Gold Medal, which was the highest honor at the event.  The Steiff bears became so popular, other companies quickly began manufacturing their own versions of this adorable toy animal.

Now let’s move to Brooklyn, New York, at about the same time, where Morris and Rose Michtom emigrated from Russia and opened a little candy store.  To attract more children to their candy shop, they began making soft, plush animal toys, which they strategically placed in their shop window.

Meanwhile, several thousand miles away, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, was in Mississippi to settle a border dispute.  While there, he was invited by the Governor and others to go on a hunting trip.  Hours had passed and although the other hunters had been successful in killing an animal, President Roosevelt still hadn’t shot anything.  His aides, after a long and exhausting chase with the hounds, cornered a young bear cub and tied it to a tree.  They then invited the President to shoot it.  As an avid hunter and outdoors man, the President couldn’t bring himself to shoot a defenseless little cub, saying it would be unsportsmanlike to kill a defenseless animal that way.  He ordered it to be set free, “Spare the bear! I will not shoot a tethered animal.”

Political cartoon by Clifford Berryman, The Washington Post, Nov 16, 1902

The incident generated national attention and was depicted in a popular political cartoon, titled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi” by Clifford Berryman.   Inspired by the cartoon, the Michtoms made a stuffed bear in honor of President Roosevelt.  They used the bear in Berryman’s cartoon as a guide, and quickly worked out a pattern.  On February 15, 1903, Morris put the stuffed animal in his shop window at 404 Tompkins Avenue in Brooklyn with a copy of the cartoon and a handwritten notice saying ‘Teddy’s Bear‘.

Not only did someone immediately enter the store to buy the bear, but 12 other customers also wanted to buy it.  The Michtoms didn’t want to offend the President by using his name without permission, so instead of selling “Teddy’s Bear” they mailed the bear to the White House and asked Roosevelt for the use of his name. The President replied telling them they were free to use his name if they wanted, but he doubted it would help with sales.  He was wrong.  Sales skyrocketed and because of the immense popularity of “Teddy’s Bear’s”, Roosevelt adopted it as their symbol in the 1904 election.  The Michtom teddy bears were placed on display at every White House function.

The Michtoms ultimately closed their candy store ad went on to start one of the most successful toy companies in the world, the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company.  The Ideal Novelty and Toy Company manufactured not only teddy bears, but many other very familiar toys as well.  You may have heard of the Betsy Wetsy doll, or Patti Playpal.  Perhaps you had a Tammy, a Thumbelina or Crissy doll?  Of course, everyone knows about the Rubik’s Cube.

So the world’s most beloved stuffed animal was, in fact, named in honor of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.  Who knew this adorable, little stuffed animal had such an interesting past?  Now more than a century later, Steiff continues to make stuffed toy bears, with its vintage teddy bears prized by collectors everywhere, commanding outrageously high prices at auctions.  Do you have one?

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References:  Daily MailNewstrack, History, Theodore Roosevelt Assn., Toys and Games, Taxidermy, Toby Simkins, Wikipedia



It’s all about the PIE in the U.K.  Whether it’s lunch time, tea time or a take-away, pies are everywhere … hot, warm, or cold … pork pies, steak pies, chicken pies, fish pies, even mixed veg pies.  Eaten at home, at a restaurant, or while walking down the street, the pie can be a complete meal, or just a snack.  From the pie shop to the butchers to the grocery store to Mom’s kitchen, everyone has their favorite and everyone loves their pies!!

We’ve just returned from England and the first thing hubby had to have while we were there was … a pie!  How many did he have during our week’s visit?  Too many to count.  Pies are English comfort food at its best.  I must say I do enjoy an occasional pie myself.  I’ve made them many times before, and have posted the recipe for, my favorite, Chicken and Leek Pie, but today it’s going to be the classic Steak and Mushroom Pie.  So, let’s get going!

I’m topping this pie with a puff pastry crust (yes, from the frozen food department of the grocery store).  You can top your pie with a short-crust if you’d like, or even a cobbler or biscuit topping.  It’s entirely up to you.  Whichever you choose, this is not a difficult pie to make at all.  Perfect for a cold Sunday afternoon.

Stove top cooking for approximately 1-1/2 hours.  Preheated oven 400°F.  Bakes for approximately 25 to 30 minutes.  Serves 4 to 6.

2-1/2 lbs. chuck steak, trimmed and cubed
4 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper
2 or 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 lg. onion, chopped
2 lg. carrots, peeled and sliced
2 cups good beef stock
1 cup stout or ale
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 pint button mushrooms, quartered
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, beaten

In a large plastic bag, put the flour and 1 teaspoon salt and pepper.  Shake it about to incorporate.  Then add the cubed, trimmed steak.  Shake the bag to coat the steak evenly.

On the stove, in a large, heavy pot, heat the oil over medium/high heat.  Add a few pieces at a time of the coated steak to brown.  If you add all the steak at once, the oil temperature will cool down too quickly and the steak will just steam.  Take the seared steak out, put it aside and brown more.  After all the steak has been nicely seared, put the onions and carrots into the pot, reduce the heat a bit and cook til softened – about 5 minutes.

Put the browned steak back into the pot.  Pour in the beef stock (homemade or store bought), the ale (Guiness is perfect) and tomato paste.  Combine well and then add the bay leaves.  Taste to adjust the seasoning – adding salt and pepper as needed.

Cover tightly, reduce the heat to low and let simmer gently for about an hour.  After an hour, add the mushrooms.  Let simmer again for about 15 minutes, leaving the cover off or halfway (depending upon how much liquid is in the pot) and  taste again to adjust the seasoning.  Meanwhile, prepare the crust.  Roll the puff pastry out on a lightly floured board just a bit.  Don’t roll it too thin.  You want a nice hearty crust.

If you are making one casserole, then nothing else needs to be done – except for cutting a hole in the middle for the steam to escape while baking.  If you are making individual servings, as I did, then cut the pastry for the amount of dishes you are making.  I made six ramekins – so I cut the pastry into six pieces – with a hole in the center of each one.

Preheat the oven now.  From the pot, fill the casserole dish or dishes.  Around the rim of each dish, brush on the beaten egg.  Now fit the pastry crust onto the dish, pressing tightly around the edges.  Trim away any excess pastry.  (Next time, however, I am not going to trim the crust.  I’m going to leave it hanging over the sides – shrinkage does occur  : ).  Brush the top of the pastry with the beaten egg.

Place the casserole dish or dishes onto a baking tray – leaking can occur.  Place the tray into the oven at 400° and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is nicely browned.  When it’s browned, it’s ready!  Remove from the oven and eat!

This hearty beef stew with its rich gravy and buttery crust is soooo satisfying … a complete meal in itself.  Serve this pie with a side salad and crusty bread and you have the perfect comfort food for a cold winter’s night.



It’s a cold, snowy Sunday in January.  What do you do?  Curl up on the sofa and read a book?  Maybe!  But, first how about baking a batch of delicious biscotti.   After which, curling up on the sofa with a piping hot mug of tea, yummy biscotti and a good book sounds like a perfect afternoon!

I didn’t post all the photos for the preparation and assembly for this recipe, primarily because they are the same as the photo instructions for my other biscotti recipe – White Chocolate Cranberry Biscotti.  Biscotti are really quite easy to make.  And, in most homes, not mine, properly stored, they can stay fresh for weeks.  Biscotti were actually created in Italy as a convenience food for travelers and the Roman army, rather than a sweet treat to go with coffee, tea and, of course, wine.  The “twice-baked” finger-shaped confections are “dried out” during the second baking in order to make them more durable.

Biscotti were originally flavored with almond, but now you can find biscotti made with dozens of flavors and combinations of flavors.   My previous recipe was White Chocolate and Dried Cranberry, but today I’m feeling like chocolate.  And to make these even more chocolaty, I’m adding mini chocolate chips to the chocolate batter.  Let’s go!

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Grease or line with parchment paper, two baking sheets.  Makes about two dozen.

1 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup Dutch process cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt
1 ounce softened butter (not melted)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 eggs, room temperature*
1 cup chopped walnuts (or any chopped nuts)
6 oz. pkg. mini chocolate chips

In one bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.  I always sift twice, just to ensure the dry ingredients are incorporated completely.  Who wants to get a mouthful of baking powder??

In another bowl, beat the butter, sugar and vanilla til well combined.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.  If the batter appears curdled at this point, don’t worry.  It will come together.

Stir in the dry ingredients, and then add the chocolate chips and chopped walnuts.  Cover the batter and then refrigerate for an hour.  It will be easier to handle when nice and cold.

Take the batter from the frig and dump it onto a lightly floured board.  Knead for a few seconds til it forms a ball.  Cut the ball in half.  Form each half into a narrow log – about 3/4″ high and about 6″ or 7″ long.  When baked, you will slice this log diagonally, so be sure it’s not too wide.

Place each log onto a baking tray and bake in the center of the oven for about 20 to 30 minutes.  Check for doneness with a cake tester inserted into the middle.  When cooked through, remove from the oven and cool on racks.

Only when completely cooled should you slice the logs.  If you are too impatient and slice them when they are still warm, they will crumble.  Using a serrated knife, cut each log on the diagonal, into about 1/2″ slices.  Place the slices on the baking trays, in a single layer.  Return them to the preheated oven and continue baking for about 15 to 20 minutes.  I flip them over halfway through the baking, but not everyone does.  It’s up to you.  When done, cool completely on racks.

These super chocolaty, crunchy biscotti are rich and sweet and delicious!  My suggestion … put a few away as a treat for yourself because these are going to disappear quickly.  Now you’re ready to curl up on the sofa with a good book and steaming, hot cuppa!!

* People always ask me why should eggs be at room temperature for baking.  I’m sure with cold eggs, your bakes will be fine, but probably more dense than you might have wanted. With room temperature eggs, the whites and yolks combine easier, which means they will disperse into the batter more evenly, making for more even baking and lighter texture.  If you’ve forgotten to take the eggs out of the frig before hand, not to worry.  Place the eggs in hot (not boiling water) for 10 to 15 minutes and they’ll be perfect.



When hubby told me we were going to the theater to see a Pantomime , I thought ‘how strange … a play done silently, without words, just using gestures and expressions’.  Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  In England, a Pantomime is anything but a silent, wordless production.  It is a bawdy, slapstick, over-the-top extravaganza geared to children, with most of the jokes just beyond the children’s grasp.

Pantomimes are traditionally children’s fairy tales, performed around Christmastime in small towns and large cities all over the U.K., for the whole family to enjoy.  Although they can be traced back to the middle ages, they really became popular in the 1700s in the theatres in Drury Lane.  The plot is the same … young love between an innocent, pretty girl and a handsome princely boy, a good queen, or a bad queen and a good or bad demon king, a maternal drag character in outlandish costumes, a clownish physical comedian, children characters, and a chorus of singers and dancers.  This all takes place, of course, in a ‘land far, far away‘.

The comedy is typical English … bawdy, slapstick and silly.  The musical numbers are always outlandish and geared to the local audience.  And, of course, audience participation is a very important part.  Where else can you “boo” the villain as he or she comes out on stage or shout out to the actors “look out he’s behind you” or “oh, no, you didn’t”.  Should you sit in the first few rows of the theater, be prepared to become part of the show.  At our production, the children loved the marshmallows being shot out into the audience, the water pistols, and rolls of toilet paper heading their way.  Where else can you find good, clean, slapstick fun today?

Our “Pantomime” was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs … no, not Sneezy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful, Dopey or Doc, with which you might be familiar, but rather The Magnificent Seven.  These seven actors were creatively costumed in black cloaks which hid the fact that they were traversing around the stage on their knees.  “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go was replaced by the more topical “you lift us up”.  Yes, Snow White fell victim to eating the poisoned apple, only to be awakened by her one true love, Prince Charming.  But it was the evil queen who stole the show as she flew over the audience on a Pterodactyl.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

We saw many other Pantos advertised during our travels in England this past week, from Jack and the Beanstock to  Cinderella, Aladdin, and Sleeping Beauty.  Pantomime is a thriving business in the UK. during the holidays, with large theaters competing to attract “star” names which, hopefully, will attract a sell-out audience.  And now I understand why.  These productions are a family tradition and children will remember them forever!

Should you ever get the chance to go to a “pantomime” don’t confuse it as I did.  It’s not a silent, gesture-filled production, it’s a bawdy, comedic, over-the-top, musical fairy tale!  And, please, don’t hesitate to go!!


This is the trendiest dessert/cookie to hit the food industry since probably Baked Alaska.  No, not the coconut “macaroon” you see in the grocery stores at Passover, I’m talking about the classic, tiny, ganache-filled French Macaron … pronounced with a short “O” like “on” not a looong “O” as in “une” … and made with ground almonds, not shredded coconut.

I first discovered this little, crunchy, chewy, filled confection quite a few years ago at a patisserie in London.  There were trays and trays of the pastel-colored cookies lined up in the window.  The colorful display and the exactness of each cookie was eye-catching to say the least.  The next time I saw them was a few years later at a wholesale food show in New York City, and buyers were standing in line to place their orders.  I stood in line too (not to place an order, but just to sample one).  A delicate, light, crunchy exterior with a soft and gooey interior … maybe one of the best little mouthfuls of sweetness I’ve ever had.  Fast forward to today and now these little confections are everywhere!!!  Not only on bakery shelves, but packaged macarons can even be found at Home Goods and Marshalls!  Really??

The Middle East should really be credited with giving us the origins of the macaron.  By the 1st century, they were exploring the culinary possibilities of adding honey, fruit and nuts to food, which resulted with almonds becoming their biggest export.  By the 7th century Persians were indulging in rich, luxurious cakes and pastries, made from these ground almonds called “marzipan”.  These treats reached Europe by the 14th century and it is actually Italians who created this little marzipan nugget.  The name “macaron” comes from the Italian word for paste which is “macaroni” (pasta is a paste made from flour, water and eggs).  I grew up calling pasta macaroni, didn’t you?

The cookies were produced in Venetian monasteries for centuries.  They were referred to simply  as “priest’s bellybuttons” because of the round shape.  You have to know that these cookies were rather plain in color and not sandwiched together as they are today.  In fact, the Italian amaretti cookie is also a ‘macaron’.  The differences are the amaretti is still not sandwiched together with a filling and is flavored with an almond liqueur.

The cookies remained an Italian treat until the Italian princess, Catherine de’ Medici, requested her pastry chefs travel with her to France to make these little delicacies which were to be served at her wedding to the future king of France, Henri II.  This all occurred in the 16th century, but the almond meringue cookies didn’t become popular until the 18th century when, during the French Revolution, two Benedictine nuns began making and selling the cookies in order to support themselves.  Sister Marguerite Gaillot and Sister Marie-Elisabeth Morlot became so popular they were referred to as the “Macaron Sisters” and the  village of Nancy in France has now dedicated a square to them.

The delicate, yet crisp meringue cookie stayed very traditional until 1930.  It was the brilliant idea of chef Pierre Desfontaines, grandson of the founder of the famous French Ladurée Tea Rooms, to elevate the cookie from its humble beginnings to what we know today.  Desfontaines quite simply decided to take the two cookies and sandwich them together with a ganache filling.  The tea rooms became the fashionable spot for London’s grand dames to gather, enjoying not only a pot of tea, but macarons as well.  Today Ladurée claims to sell over fifteen thousand cookies every day!

Have you ever been to Ladurée?  I have not (but I adore PAUL, their smaller venue).
Ladurée is definitely on my bucket list!!

The myriad of colors and flavors, shapes and sizes, available in shops today are never ending — from mint to chocolate chip, peanut butter and jelly, to lemon or peach, pistachio or strawberry cheesecake, salted pretzel, maple and, of course, pumpkin.  On and on it goes.  Every cafe in Europe has macarons on their menu, including McDonald’s in France and Australia.  If McDonald’s here in the U.S. sold macarons, I might even consider going.

Baking shows on the Food Network use the macaron as one of the ultimate baking challenges.  They can’t be that difficult to make, can they?  After watching an episode of Jacques Pepin’s cooking show, he made it appear so simple, using prepared marzipan (almond paste), beaten egg whites and sugar.  Mix it all together and pipe onto parchment paper, let rest and then bake.  Well, if Jacques Pepin says they are easy to make, then I’m going to give it a try.  And I have the perfect party coming up this weekend.  So here goes ….

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References:  The Nibble, The Daily Meal, Culture Trip, WikipediaBon Jour Paris



If “the muffin man” knew about these muffins, he’d still be in business today.  Dark, moist, spicy and absolutely delicious.  I’m pretty sure this easy-to-make recipe will become one of your “keepers” … and not just in the fall season.  The ingredient list might look long, but it is repetitive, so don’t be concerned.  You really don’t need that much at all.  And, if you bake, I’m sure you already have all these ingredients in your cupboard and frig.  If not, you might want to go shopping.

Bake 375° 30 to 35 minutes.  Makes 9 to 12 (depending upon size).

1-3/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 15oz. can pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
2 eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup milk

3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
6 tablespoons butter, melted

Icing – optional
2 cups 10x sugar
1 tablespoons milk
3 tablespoons maple syrup

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients – flour, baking soda, baking power, salt, spices – whisk together til well blended and then set aside.  In another bowl, beat the oil and sugars, canned pumpkin, eggs and milk until smooth and well blended.

Mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.  Don’t overbeat.  When completely blended together, spoon into paper lined (or greased) muffin pans.  Don’t overfill the muffin cups because you need to leave room for the topping.  Depending upon how large you’d like the muffins, you should get 12 good sized muffins.

In a third bowl, mix together the flour, sugars and cinnamon.  When well blended, add the melted butter and, with a fork, mix til crumbly.  Spoon this topping onto each muffin cup.  Press the topping down a bit so that it doesn’t fall off.

Bake in a preheated 375° oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean.  Remove from the oven and let them cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then remove them from the pan and onto a rack.

In a small bowl mix the milk, maple syrup and confectioners sugar together until smooth.  Drizzle liberally over the tops of the cooled muffins.

That’s it!  Easy, peasy lemon squeezy!  Now go put the kettle on because you are definitely going to want a nice, hot cuppa with one of these moist, delicious pumpkin muffins.



Halloween is fast approaching and the Jack O’Lanterns are everywhere!  It’s amazing to me how this holiday has grown from a simple childhood prank to the huge retail and celebratory event it is today.

The most iconic image associated with Halloween is, of course, the Jack O’Lantern.  But, did you know how these sometimes simple, sometimes elaborately carved pumpkins became associated with the holy day of All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween as it is known today?  There are many holidays in which religion seems to have collided with pagan symbols or icons to come together as one.   What does the Easter bunny, eggs and baskets have to do with the resurrection of Christ?  What does a tree adorned with lights have to do with his birth?  I find the marriage of these iconic images fascinating.

So how did an illuminated, carved pumpkin become associated with the celebration of Halloween?  It’s a long story, let’s start with All Hallow’s Eve …

Many of our holidays originated back when people celebrated the most important event of their life, the harvest.  For Americans, Thanksgiving is the biggest ‘harvest holiday’ celebration.  But in Argentina in February, it is the blessing of the grapes.  In June Bali celebrates the blessing of the rice harvest and in Greece it is the blessing of the sea.  For the Celts who lived in Ireland 2,500 years ago, it was November 1st, their New Year, or the Samhain (pronounced ‘sow-in’).   Not only did this day mark the official day of ‘harvest’ it signaled the end of summer and the beginning of the dark, cold winter.

The shorter days and long, dark nights were eerie and forboding to the Celts, and often associated with death.  They believed that on the “eve” before the new year, the line between both worlds opened up and the ghosts of the dead would return to earth.  These ghosts would cause chaos, destroying crops and endangering the harvest.  To ensure the safety of the harvest, the night before the New Year, Celtic priests, the Druids, would build bonfires and make sacrifices to the Gods.  The villagers would often wear animal heads and skins, dance and tell fortunes to ward off the evil spirits.

Meanwhile, in Rome many years later, Pope Boniface IV established the feast of ‘All Martyr’s Day’ on May 13th to honor all Christian martyrs.  Later Pope Gregory III expanded this festival to include not only martyrs but saints as well and he moved the observance from May 13th to November 1st.  Hmmm, have we not heard that date before?  With Christianity spreading throughout the Celtic lands, it wasn’t long before the church attempted to replace the Celtic festival of Samhain with a church-approved holiday.  As has happened throughout history, the Christian holiday (‘holy day’) eventually merged with the Pagan celebration, with bonfires, parades, and dressing up as saints, angels or devils.

But, wait!  How does a carved pumpkin fit into all this?

Celtic legend says that a very, very frugal man, ‘stingy’ you might say, used to frequent the pubs in his Irish village, but when it came time to pay for his pint, he always had a convenient excuse for not being able to pay up.  Yes, his name was “Jack”.  One evening stingy ol’ Jack tricked the devil himself into paying his tab in exchange for Jack’s soul.  But when the devil demanded his payoff, Jack reneged and before the devil could do anything about it, Jack died.

Jack wasn’t allowed into heaven … and the devil wouldn’t allow him to enter hell.  His soul was cast out into the night with only a burning coal to light his way.  Jack hollowed out a turnip and placed the burning coal inside … left to wander the earth alone, especially on All Hallow’s Eve.

To honor Jack, the Celts hollowed out turnips and created their own lanterns … the ‘Jack of the Lantern’.  And when the people, often children, would go door-to-door during All Hallow’s Eve to pray for the dead and, hopefully, be paid with soul cakes, they would carry their carved Jack O’Lanterns to light the way.

Jack o’ the lantern! Joan the wad,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad
Light me home, the weather’s bad.

You may learn otherwise about the origin and history of the Jack O’Lantern, but how could you not love this legend.  Although carved gourds have been used in many countries around the world, the Irish are credited with creating these ghoulish creatures, used primarily to ward off harmful spirits.  When the Irish emigrated to the New World, they brought the tradition with them, eventually replacing turnips with Pumpkins.

Happy Halloween everyone!

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References:  Encyclopedia Brittanica, History, Wikipedia, Wikipedia II, Instructables