Archive for the ‘Cakes, Pies, and Pastry’ Category

Pumpkin Puffs

Monday, December 23rd, 2013


A while back I wrote about the ways in which cooking and music can both be viewed as folk practices. We start with a melody (or a recipe) that has been handed down for generations and put our own little tweak on it, allowing it to evolve.

As Christmas approaches and we’re surrounded by holiday music, I’m struck by another way in which cooking and music resemble each other.

My neighbor Alice Parker, a composer and conductor who excels at getting groups of people to sing with all their hearts (even if they don’t think they can sing!), often exhorts her singers to leave the notes on the page behind.

Music, she says, isn’t notes on a page. It’s what fills a room when singers and instrumentalists lift their eyes off that page and start interpreting the emotions behind the notes.

Music is something concrete plus a group of people coming together plus a little bit of magic.

That description also applies to cooking—particularly at this time of year, when we frequently cook alongside our families and neighbors.

This recipe came together in a group. My apartment complex in Virginia hosts cooking demonstrations from time to time. We thought it might be fun to try a holiday cookie swap. It took place last weekend. Community members brought their own cookies and recipes. As they munched and we talked I threw together a couple of batches of cookies (including my seasonal illumination cookies).

I naturally wanted to try baking something new … or at least new-ish. Those of you who read a lot of my writing will recognize the concoction below as a combination of two formulas: a basic pumpkin pie and the cranberry cream puffs I made a couple of years ago.

I wasn’t sure it would work, but it seemed worth trying. Luckily, I had lots of help filling the puffs from my fellow apartment dwellers.

(I wish I had photos of the event, but we were too busy cooking to remember to take them! I did take one of the final product and one of the filling.)

In end, we decided that this “new” holiday recipe was a definite keeper. So I offer it to you, along with my wishes for a delicious Christmas and a healthy, happy, peaceful new year.

pumpkin puffsweb

Pumpkin Cream Puffs

I know it sounds as though this recipe has a LOT of steps. You can do much of the preparation in advance however. The custard may be done the day before and refrigerated. Ditto the caramel sauce (and you can always skip that and just dust a little confectioner’s sugar on top of your puffs).

Even the cream puffs can be made in advance and frozen for a day or two. Refresh them by baking them, lightly covered with foil, at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. If you prefer to purchase frozen cream-puff shells, feel free to do so. The filling is the important part of the recipe.


for the custard:

1-1/2 cups pumpkin or winter squash puree
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ginger or allspice (or a bit of each)
1 cup evaporated milk
1/2 cup water
2 eggs

for the cream puffs:

1 cup water
1/2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter
1-1/4 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs at room temperature (place them in warm water for a few minutes to achieve the right temperature)

for the optional caramel sauce:

1 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
2 teaspoons vanilla

for the filling:

2 cups heavy cream
confectioner’s sugar and vanilla to taste (we used about 2 tablespoons sugar—maybe a little more—and 2 teaspoons vanilla)

pumpkin fillingweb


for the custard:

Make the custard early—ideally the day before—so it will have plenty of time to cool.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and grease a 9-inch pie dish. Combine the custard ingredients, and place them in the pie dish. Bake for 10 minutes; then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, or until firm. Allow the custard to cool to room temperature; then cover it and refrigerate it until you are ready to assemble the puffs.

for the optional but good caramel sauce:

In a heavy, wide-bottom pan that holds at least 2 quarts slowly melt the sugar over medium-low heat. You may push the sugar in from the edges with a heavy spoon or heat-resistant spatula, and you may shake the pan over the heat. Try to avoid stirring the sugar, however. Be very careful; melting sugar can be extremely hot.

When the sugar has melted and turned a lovely caramel brown, remove it from the heat and whisk in half of the cream, followed by the other half plus the salt and vanilla. The sauce will bubble furiously.

If for some reason the sauce seizes (that is, the sugar hardens and doesn’t get absorbed by the cream), put it back over low heat until the sugar melts. Set the sauce aside. If you are making it in advance, cover and refrigerate it when it gets to room temperature so that it will last until you are ready to use it.

for the puffs:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease two cookie sheets or line them with silicone.

In a medium saucepan bring the water, butter, and salt to a rolling boil. Throw in the flour all at once. Using a wooden spoon stir it in quickly until it becomes smooth and follows the spoon around the pan. Remove the pan from the heat.

Let it rest until it is cool enough so that you can stick your finger in and hold it there for a few seconds (this takes very little time).

Place the dough in a mixer bowl, and beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating vigorously after each egg. Make sure you continue beating for 1 minute after the last egg goes in. The dough will be stiff.

Drop teaspoonsful of dough onto the cookie sheets, leaving enough space between them so the puffs can expand to golf-ball size in the oven.

Bake the pastries until they puff up and begin to turn a light golden brown—about 15 minutes.

Remove them from the oven and quickly use a sharp knife to cut a small slit in the side of each puff. (This keeps the puffs from getting soggy.) Return them to the oven for 5 more minutes. If the puffs seem in danger of burning, reduce the temperature to 350 degrees.

Remove the puffs from the oven and cool them on wire racks.

for the filling:

Just before you are ready to assemble your puffs, whip the cream until it is thick and forms nice peaks, adding the sugar and vanilla toward the end of this process.

Use a whisk to break up the pumpkin custard. Gently fold it into the whipped cream.

for assembly:

Carefully cut open each puff in the middle; you will find that each of them has what King Arthur Flour (from which I slightly adapted the puff recipe) calls a “natural fault line.”

Decorate the bottom of each puff with the pumpkin-cream mixture and replace the top. Drizzle a little caramel sauce on top if desired. (If you prefer a little confectioner’s sugar, go for that.)

This recipe makes about 40 cream puffs. You may make fewer puffs by making them a little bigger—or even more puffs by making them smaller.


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The Feast of Love and Hope and Gratitude

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013


This month Americans are observing many anniversaries. Today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I long for its eloquence and brevity every time I write—and every time I listen to a political speech.

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in a few days is dominating our television screens now almost as much as it did at the time of that president’s death.

Mulling over it repeatedly, we explore our history, our feelings about our leaders, and the difficulty of ever knowing precisely what happened in the past. (The assassination is an event that has been seen by millions of people and studied by thousands—and yet no one can be 100-percent sure exactly what happened on that day in Dallas.)

The anniversary that interests me most, however, is another Lincoln-related one. In November 1863, a week after writing and reciting the Gettysburg Address, our 16th president led Americans in celebrating our first national day of Thanksgiving.

States and communities had celebrated their own days of Thanksgiving for a couple of centuries by then. It was Lincoln who nationalized the holiday and identified it as the last Thursday in November. (It eventually became the fourth Thursday rather than the last.)

Sarah Josepha Hale

Sarah Josepha Hale

Writer/editor Sarah Josepha Hale had campaigned unsuccessfully by letter for such a day with previous presidents beginning with Zachary Taylor. It took Lincoln’s genius to identify Thanksgiving as a quintessentially American holiday—one that was particularly appropriate to a nation at war.

It is when we are feeling the most stress that we have the greatest need to be grateful. Lincoln realized that a nation at war needed to stop, take stock of its blessings, and express gratitude—perhaps even more than a nation at peace. Indeed, his original proclamation reminded Americans to be particularly mindful of those whose families had been disrupted and/or destroyed by the war.

This spirit lives on in the efforts of a variety of organizations to serve Thanksgiving meals (and bring Thanksgiving cheer) to veterans and their families. It also continues whenever those of us hosting Thanksgiving dinner invite friends, relatives, or strangers to join us for this annual feast of love and hope and gratitude.


You may see Lincoln’s original Thanksgiving proclamation at the National Archives website. And the White House website offers what it calls the “definitive” history of the practice of pardoning a turkey for Thanksgiving. I love the weird American-ness of this tradition; we pardon one turkey a year so that we can feel less guilty about eating millions of its cousins!

I’m not actually posting a Thanksgiving recipe this year—although I refer you to several of them I have posted over the years. Try the hush-puppy pudding … or cranberry upside-down cake … or even simple roasted Brussels sprouts.

Instead I offer this simple seasonal quiche. It uses a vegetable I always overbuy at this time of year, the sweet potato. (I received several with my farm share last week so I was forced to get creative.)

Happy Thanksgiving to you all … and to your families. Don’t forget to open your homes and your hearts to strangers at this time of year.

SP Tartweb

Sweet Potato Tart


1 large sweet potato, cut into small pieces and peeled if you want to peel it
extra-virgin olive oil as needed
salt to taste
3 large or 4 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
fresh, chopped parsley to taste
four eggs
1/2 cup cream
a dash of Creole seasoning
ounces (more or less) sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 8-inch pie shell


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Pour a tablespoon of oil into a bowl. Stir in salt to taste (start with 1/2 teaspoon). Toss in the pieces of sweet potato.

Place the sweet-potato pieces on a cookie sheet or baking pan, and roast until they are lightly brown around the edges, stirring occasionally. This took me about 1-1/4 hours, but my oven runs cool so it may take you less time.

While the sweet potatoes are cooking, splash oil onto a non-stick frying pan. Place the pan over medium-low heat. Toss in the onion slices.

Cook them slowly, stirring every 5 minutes or so, until they are reduced and softly caramelized. This may take an hour or more. Add a pinch of salt after the first 1/2 hour—and add a little more oil if you need it as you cook. When the onions are finished, stir in the parsley.

Both the onions and the sweet potatoes may be cooked the day before you want to serve your quiche; refrigerate the cooked vegetables until they are needed.

When you are ready to assemble your quiche whisk together the eggs, cream, and Creole seasoning in a bowl.

Place the pie shell in a pie pan. Sprinkle half of the cheese over the pie crust. Top the cheese with the onions and then the sweet potatoes; then pour on the cream/egg custard, and finish with the remaining cheese.

Place the tart (or quiche or whatever you want to call it!) on a rimmed cookie sheet to prevent spillage, and bake it for about 40 minutes, until the custard is set and the top is golden—but the sweet potatoes peeking out are not burning!

Serves 6.

assembling tartweb

The tart halfway through assembly

Celebrating the March on Washington

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Today in honor of the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary I cooked a couple of appropriate recipes on the television program “Mass Appeal.” I post the videos below.

You may see the full recipes elsewhere on this very blog. I originally made the black-eyed peas to remember the television program “Amos and Andy.”

And the pound cake, which may be made with blueberries as well as peaches, appears here.

Happy viewing!

The Power and Passion of Natasha Lowe

Thursday, April 25th, 2013


I apologize for my recent absence from these pages! I have been working on polishing my forthcoming book, Pulling Taffy, a project that has included recording the audio version of the book.

I’m still working on setting things up for the book so I’m afraid I won’t be posting a lot in the near future. But I CAN offer you this food-related story, which I wrote recently for the Greenfield Recorder.

“Follow your passion” is Poppy Pendle’s motto. Poppy’s creator lives by that motto as well.

A book for young readers (more or less eight to 12 year olds), The Power of Poppy Pendle is only a few months old but has already entered its second printing.

Poppy’s author is the English-born Natasha Lowe, who lives in an 1840 house in Deerfield, Massachusetts, with an entrepreneurial husband, four children, a busy kitchen, and a vibrant imagination.

Natasha’s passion for storytelling—and for life—comes across with gusto in her huge smile and her rapid conversational style. She told me in a recent interview that she inherited her love of narrative from her parents.

“My parents were amazing storytellers. My mum grew up in Lancashire, and she would tell us a story about a witch called Beady Eyes,” said Natasha. “I’ve always had a love of witches—not evil witches but good, fun-loving witches.”

Poppy Pendle is one such witch. The book opens with her birth in a bakery, a location that foreshadows Poppy’s passion. The child Poppy wants nothing more than to be a baker. Unfortunately, her parents detect that she has magical powers and want her to grow up to be a prestigious white witch like her Great-Granny Mabel.

They enroll Poppy in an academy of magic. She excels at charms and spells but would trade them all for a plate of cookies. She flies with grace but would rather wield a rolling pin than a broomstick.

Her parents ignore her protestations that she doesn’t want to be a witch, breaking Poppy’s heart by taking the oven out of their kitchen so that she won’t be distracted from her magical studies by baking projects.

Eventually, Poppy’s frustration and anger, combined with her talent for magic, lead her to go over to “the dark side.” She casts spells that put her at odds with her family, her teachers, and society at large. She must re-find her passion before she can right the wrongs she has done and move forward in life.

Poppy is a charming heroine, with enough spice in her personal recipe to enable boys as well as girls to identify with her. The book’s message of following one’s passion, as Natasha told me, “is one for everyone to hear.”

She added, “And if there’s a message in there for parents, it’s to listen to your children.”

Natasha explained that she has learned the value of listening from her varied children, three boys and a girl, who range in age from nine to 20. “You have to have faith, and you have to trust your kids.”

The lesson also came from her parents, who always had faith in her, she recalled.

She came to this country in her late teens on a student visa, looking for a place to learn creative writing. Fate changed her plans when she met the man she was to marry, and he quickly proposed. “It was one of those crazy, impulsive things,” she recalled.

She worried about the reaction of her parents. After a quick inspection, however, they told her, “He looks great for you. We have always taught you to trust your instincts … so, if it feels right, stay.”

Natasha’s husband had purchased the house on the main street of Historic Deerfield as an investment while he was a senior at Deerfield Academy.

“He showed it to me,” remembered the city-bred Natasha. “I said, ‘It’s absolutely gorgeous. But I’ll never live in the country.’”

The pair fixed the house up as a bed and breakfast and hired someone to run it. When that person was unable to honor the commitment at the last minute, Natasha found herself drafted as the temporary proprietor of the Tea House Bed and Breakfast.

After a year in Deerfield she was hooked. “Going through all the seasons [here], I realized I didn’t want to be anywhere else,” she told me.

The bed and breakfast lasted for about five years, and then, in Natasha’s words, “the guestrooms started filling up with children, and it was hard to offer romantic getaways with toddlers running around underfoot!” The house was a family home rather than a B&B from then on.

Natasha had always been interested in writing and had had a few short stories published in her youth. A few years ago, when her youngest child, Juliette, started kindergarten, Natasha decided that she didn’t want to look back at her life years later with regret.

“If I was going to [be a writer] and take myself seriously, I had to just sit down and start sending stuff out,” she said. “I was really lucky. I got a wonderful agent quite quickly. She’s been in the children’s writing field for many, many years.”

Despite this luck, it took a few years and a few rewrites before The Power of Poppy Pendle made its way to Simon & Schuster, where esteemed children’s book editor Paula Wiseman fell in love with the book.

Wiseman’s main request was one that fit perfectly with Natasha Lowe’s vision of the book. She asked whether the author would consider adding some of Poppy’s recipes as an appendix.

Natasha launched herself into recipe testing (she admitted that she tried so many batches of lemon bars that today one of her sons refuses to eat them), and the final book now offers ten tempting recipes, including the cupcake recipe below.

I asked Natasha about the origins of Poppy’s story. She explained that it all began with a stone goose her husband brought home one day from an auction and placed in the garden. “It does look really, really real,” said Natasha.

Her then four-year-old daughter Juliette wanted an explanation for the goose’s surprised expression.

“I said maybe a witch had put a spell on it,” her mother explained.

Of course, Juliette wanted to know about the witch … and on the spot Natasha came up with the story of a young witch who was upset because she wanted to be a baker, not a witch.

“Suddenly, I knew I had to write that story,” recalled Natasha. “It was almost given to me fully formed. I actually raced inside and started working at my computer.”

Today Natasha is enjoying the task of publicizing her book—talking to children, adults, and even seniors about Poppy Pendle. She is also working on several new writing projects. “I’m never short of ideas!” she told me with a smile.

Natasha Loweweb

Poppy Pendle’s Coffee Cup Cakes

Courtesy of Natasha Lowe

Poppy Pendle dreamed up these delicious treats after drinking her first cup of French brewed coffee at her favorite bakery. Natasha told me that in England a “coffee cake” is a cake flavored with coffee rather than something to accompany a hot beverage.


1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon espresso powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons self-rising flour (or you can use regular flour and 1-1/4 teaspoons of baking powder and mix them well before adding to the batter)
1/4 teaspoon salt


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put the milk into a little dish (a small china ramekin is ideal) and warm it in the microwave for about ten seconds. If you don’t have a microwave, just warm some milk gently in a saucepan and measure out 1 tablespoon into a little dish. Sprinkle the espresso powder over the milk, and stir to blend.

If there is a food processor in your home, ask an adult to help you set it up and whiz all the cake ingredients together, including the espresso-flavored milk. Then go to the pouring and baking step.

Otherwise, put your stick of softened butter into a large bowl, and, using a hand-held mixer, whiz the butter around until it is nice and fluffy. Pour the sugar on top and beat together with the butter until well blended. Go slowly at first because you don’t want sugar flying all over the counter.

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. You can ask an adult to help you with this if you like because you don’t want bits of eggshell in the batter. Add the vanilla extract, then the self-rising flour (or flour and baking powder) and the salt and mix quickly again. You don’t want to over mix the ingredients or your cakes will be tough.

Now, mix the powerful espresso flavored milk into your cake batter, scraping around the little dish to make sure you get it all in. The batter will turn a rich coffee color and smell delicious.

Arrange 12 paper cup-cake wrappers inside a muffin tin or, if you want to make miniature cup cakes, you will need about 36 mini paper wrappers for a mini muffin pan. Fill each cup halfway with cake batter, and bake for 16 to 20 minutes for regular cup cakes, 9 to 14 minutes for minis. You might want to ask an adult to help you get the cakes into and out of the oven. Let cool them on a wire rack.

Makes 12 regular sized cup cakes or about 36 mini cup cakes.

Coffee Frosting

You can make this while the cup cakes are baking.


2-1/2 tablespoons milk
1-1/2 teaspoons espresso powder
1 stick softened butter
1-1/4 cups confectioner’s sugar
as many chocolate-flavored coffee beans as you have cup cakes


Pour the milk into a tiny dish. Warm the milk in the microwave for about 10 seconds and sprinkle the espresso powder on top. Stir to blend.

Put the softened butter into a large bowl and shake the confectioner’s sugar on top. Using a big wooden spoon or a hand-held mixer (Natasha likes to use a hand-held mixer because it makes the frosting really smooth and creamy), gently stir the espresso flavored milk into the mixture, and blend together until soft and creamy.

Go slowly to begin with; otherwise you will have sugar all over your counter! If you want a softer frosting, just add a drop or two more milk.

Using a dinner knife, smooth the frosting on top of the cup cakes and decorate with a coffee-flavored chocolate bean.

Just for fun, here's a look at my homemade recording studio.....

Just for fun, here’s a look at my homemade recording studio…..

End of Season Peach Cobbler

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Peach season is winding down in our corner of Massachusetts. I’ll miss it, but apples are on their way!

I have made this cobbler a couple of times in the past few weeks with juicy local peaches. Once I used peaches alone (the photo at the top of this post, courtesy of my friend Lisa Johnson); once, half blueberries and half peaches (the photo at the bottom).

The dessert is simple to make. It’s even simpler if you make the fruit base the night before and throw things together to bake while you’re eating your main course.

If you love ginger with your peaches, substitute a little of it for the cinnamon. Or just add ginger along with the cinnamon. I love ginger but not necessarily in peaches so I left it out.

The Cobbler


for the fruit base:

1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
4 cups chopped peaches (or half peaches and half blueberries or raspberries)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter, diced

for the cobbler crust:

1 cup flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/4 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla

for the topping:

2 tablespoons brown sugar


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Butter a 1-1/2 quart casserole dish.

Begin by making the base. Combine the sugar and cornstarch in a smallish nonreactive pot. Stir in the fruit and lemon juice.

Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Boil, stirring gently, for 1 minute. Remove the fruit from the heat and stir in the cinnamon.

Spread the fruit n the prepared pan. Dot the top with butter.

To make the crust whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the butter, but don’t overdo the process. You should still have tiny pieces of butter in the mixture.

Whisk together the milk, egg, and vanilla. Add them to the dry ingredients, and mix just until moist. Drop the resulting mixture onto the peaches, and spread it around to cover the fruit. Sprinkle brown sugar over all in little clumps.

Bake until lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes. Serves 8.