Archive for October, 2011

My Trip to Harry and David and a Giveaway

October 31, 2011

A few weeks ago, I was invited down to Medford, Oregon by the good people at Harry and David.  Wait.  Are you thinking “Harry and David – that company that sends boxes with salami and cheese?”  Well, that was my old way of thinking.  The old way before I went down to the beautiful Rogue river valley, saw the pear orchards, listened to the horticulturist and his passion for his pear trees, met a real live Charlie who showed us around his chocolate (and other treats) factory, enjoyed a lovely dinner with paired wines from a local winery and food bloggers from around the country, and learned a lot about a good company who still does things the old fashioned way.

There were many things that impressed me on our two day jam-packed visit.  The beautiful trees, orchards spread throughout the valley and workers who are paid fair wages.

The real live people making real live things that you or I might make (like these cinnamon rolls), just on a larger scale.

The incredible variety of gifts available to send to loved ones.  The pears are grown there, the Moose Munch is made there.  The chocolates, cheesecakes, brownies, and cookies are made in Charlie’s factory.  We got to see the test kitchen where we were able to taste a toffee they are working on.  (Verdict: Delicious but needed more salt.)

One of the first things we learned is that Harry and David is trying to give a gift experience, so the packaging and the personalization of the gifts is important.  Every single bow is hand-tied.  (A lovely woman tried to teach us how to do their signature bow.  Let’s just say I won’t be getting that job any time soon.)  The few times I’ve sent gift boxes in the past, I’ve chosen companies that simply aggregate the contents of the gift from companies they work with.  You know, coffee from these people, brownies from those.  With Harry and David, it’s all made or grown by them.  In Oregon.  I like that.  I also like the community that they have created in small-town America and the jobs they create each holiday season.

I liked pretty much everything about those two days.  I also liked the gift basket that I packed for myself that arrived a couple of days after my return.  And the extra pears and cheese that I bought at the company store which arrived a few days after that.  And then, just when we were starting to run low on pears, another huge gorgeous basket arrived, complete with Martha Stewart’s new Pies and Tarts book – autographed!

In short, they spoiled us.  Food bloggers get invited on trips like these, and get spoiled rotten, in the hopes that we will write favorably about the company/product/resort destination.  I did have my doubts going in to this trip but I was very impressed with all I saw and tasted and everyone I met.  Because I like to share the bounty, I asked if I could give away some pears and my question was met by a resounding “YES!”.  So, want some pears?

I’m giving away a six-pack of the famous Harry and David pears.  Just tell me what gift you looked forward to receiving each holiday season.  Leave a comment and I will pick a winner randomly next Monday, November 7th.  You have until noon that day (PST) to enter.  U.S. residents only please.  (Sorry non U.S. friends – there are funny laws about sending fruit across borders.)  UPDATE: This contest is now closed.

Finally, thank you all for being patient with the lack of food posts last week.  I will be back on track soon.  xo


Thank You and Giveaway Results

October 26, 2011

Hello Friends.

First, I want to thank you, very sincerely, for all the comments, emails, phone calls about my accident.  Graham seems to be fine, I am healing, and our car, well, our car will be fixed in a couple of weeks.  My right thumb went from looking like a sausage to just having a big bruise.  I am almost able to bend it without pain.  Physical injuries hurt but I think my soul was crushed more than my body.  After Randy came home early from his high school reunion, I sort of crashed emotionally.  I was very melancholy and all I wanted to do was sleep.  Guilt and fear can do that to you.  Thankfully, after a day and a half of that, I am spiritually on the mend as well as physically.  It helped, very much, to continue getting lovely notes from you all during that rough patch.

Moving on – Who Won the Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook??  I have to say, this was a fascinating exercise.  Reading about the recipes you all are trying to find made me want to sit down and email each of you to say, “Well, have you tried this one??”  Some of you I couldn’t help (I’m talking to the pork people and those on a meat sauce quest) but some of you I could.  If you are searching for a chocolate chip cookie, have you tried this one?

Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies

If you are looking for a brownie, have you tried this one?


The Baked Brownie

If you are looking for gnocchi, have you tried this one?

Ethan Stowell’s Method for Perfect Gnocchi

If you are looking for Macaroni and Cheese, have you tried this one?

Martha Stewart’s Gratinéed Macaroni and Cheese with Tomatoes

If you are looking for a scone, have you tried this one?


Classic Currant Scones

And If you are looking for pizza crust, please do yourself a favor and try Mark Bittman’s recipe.

I’m not saying these recipes are perfect, but I like them very much.  Your comments gave me some wonderful new ideas to try for this blog.  And I also realized that my all-time favorite butternut squash soup is not here.  That will be remedied next week.  More vegetable soups will follow as will gingerbread, biscuits, and a perfect marinara.  Please know that I am on my own quest too.  Thanks for all the ideas.

And without further ado, based on my random generator, the cookbook winner is:


Random numbers generated Oct 26 2011 at 10:11:50 by  
Free educational resources for parapsychology, psychical research & mind magic.

Jane!  Jane said she wanted a perfect chocolate cake recipe, but seeing as I posted one, she is now looking for a vanilla cake.  Jane, send me an email so I can get your address.

Thanks again for playing everyone.  I have another great giveaway coming up tomorrow!

When Life Tells You to Slow Down

October 22, 2011

On the heels of my previous “my life is so busy” post.

Friday afternoon 4:30pm:
Graham had been home from school for about half an hour.  His first grade class had a potluck that night and I was racing to finish the salad that I was assigned to bring.  He asked me a million questions, I suggested he play downstairs.  I tried to pick up the mess in the house and asked him to put on his shoes and jacket.  It was one of those days when a simple request required multiple asks and a lot of patience.  By the time we got in the car to pick up his brother at preschool, I was at the end of my rope.  “Graham, you are almost seven years old, I should not have to ask you so many times for your help.  I promise I will do less yelling if you do better listening, all right?”  Of course, he said yes.  He always says yes.

Down our hill we went.  We stopped at our major intersection.  There are always a lot of cars at that time of day yet it seemed that there were even more than usual.  The clock was ticking.  I was still tempering my annoyance at the time it took to get out of the house and mentally steeling myself for the night ahead with Randy out of town. So much traffic…oh here is a break…time to turn and

CRASH.  In that moment when your life is suddenly out of your control, I turned into oncoming traffic and head-on into a silver car on a rainy day that I did not see.  A sliver of a split second where I realized that my breaks were useless and then poof! airbag. smoke. pain. graham’s cries. panic about picking spencer up. pain in my hands. guilt. fear. being that person blocking a busy road with an accident. apologizing. what if. crying. nose bleeding. consoling. accepting help from strangers. looking a person you just hit head-on in the eye and mouthing “i’m sorry”.  All of it was awful.

When that kind woman (Brooke – wherever you are, thank you) came to my open window and asked if I was all right, I knew my nose was bleeding and my hands hurt and my poor Graham was terrified by the smoke coming from the airbag, all I could say was that I had another child to pick up and I needed to get there.  Slowly the pieces fell into place.  The car was un-driveable.  I had to wait for the cops to write up a report and a fire engine to come with firefighters to check out my hands, and a tow truck to take my poor battered car away.  Brooke suggested, gently, that I call the school and arrange for someone to pick him up.  I looked at my phone.  I scrolled to “p” – sure the number was under “preschool”, right?  My addled brain could not make sense of how and who to call.  I could sense Graham’s rising panic in the back seat and so I did what moms do.  I held it together.  I spoke calmly to him, told him he was about to meet real live police officers and fire fighters.  I searched for the number of the preschool and gave permission for my dear friend Deb (thank you Deb!) to pick up Spencer, then I started to process what had happened and how the next few hours were going to go.

At the end of it all, we are all right.  The poor woman I hit, with two boys in the back, is fine.  My car was towed to a body shop where they will fix the crunched front fender and hood.  Randy is flying home a day early from his high school reunion.  We are car-less at the moment until he arrives, but we live in the middle of the city and have plenty of things we can walk to.

Prior to the crash, I wasn’t texting, looking at my phone, talking on my phone, or even listening to music.  I was just hurrying.  My brain already four things ahead of where I actually was.  If this is not a slap in the face, I don’t know what is.  Time to SLOW. DOWN.  We are fortunate.  My hands ache but there is nothing broken, just some abrasions and some jamming from the air bag.  My nose bleed was because of impact, not a broken nose.  I have no bruising, cuts on my face, or whiplash and actually, the semi-permanent crick in my neck seems to be gone.  Much more importantly, my beautiful brave son is completely safe and unharmed.  Graham can be timid.  He is afraid of loud noises and things that are unfamiliar.  He likes to stick to routine.  You would think that a car accident, one that sets off the air bag with a loud BANG!, and blood coming out of his mom’s nose and hands, and the stress of wondering how we were going to pick up his brother, and police cars and fire trucks – you just might think that all that would send my little man over the edge.  Not to mention that we would not be making it to his potluck.   But after a quick cry and a few requests to get out of the car, he calmed down.  He smiled at the police officer, he accepted the sticker the firefighters gave him with delight.  He came to understand we weren’t going to make the potluck and moved on.

Once home, the boys both set out to draw me pictures because my hands hurt.  I couldn’t hold them close enough.  I read them countless stories.  I called Randy four times.  I replayed that moment of impact hundreds of times asking “what if” until my head hurt.  Universe, I am listening.  I really am.


Catching My Breath

October 21, 2011

Hello Friends.

I’m a little more than halfway through what will, when all is said and done, be the busiest month of this year.  That scares me because November is looming and December… well, we all know how crazy December can be.

I have a friend who hates when people say they are busy.  “Everyone is busy!  Don’t use it as an excuse!”  I hear her voice in my head regularly.  And it’s true.  All my friends are busy, my brothers are busy, my husband is busy, hell – even my kids are busy.  I don’t believe in over-scheduling children but when they are small, even things like after-school care, art classes, soccer, and Cub Scouts can make for a busy week.

I’d love to share some healthy nourishing dish with you but I don’t have one.  I may not have one until next week.  Aside from a salad I threw together from my crisper drawer (which actually turned out to be very tasty), I have made nothing savory except eggs and those were for breakfast.  I hope to cook on Sunday night.  There may be a treat between now and then.  We will see.  I do have a chance for you to win a copy of the new Cook’s Illustrated cookbook (click here).  I will have another cool giveaway next week.  And I have some photos.

The last time we had real family photos taken was soon after Spencer turned one.  He is now four and a half.  In May, Randy and I spent a weekend in Napa and our wonderful babysitter Talitha stayed with the boys.  About every other hour, she would email a photo of one or both of them, taken with her iPhone.  Those snapshots were all better than anything I have taken with my “real” camera, so when she suggested a shoot with us, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

We were lucky to get an incredible day.  I actually don’t like having my picture taken so I mentally fought this a bit.  But I’m so glad that we got some of just Randy and me.  These are just the first few that she sent us but I love them and wanted to share.  Anyway, thanks to all of you for being here and I hope to feed you soon.


Perfect Chocolate Birthday Cake and a Giveaway

October 19, 2011

I just took a quick look at the “Cake” section of my blog and counted no fewer than 17 chocolate cakes.  17!  I guess I should clarify – 17 cakes that have chocolate in them, but still, 17!  And there is always room for another.

Sometimes I like bells and whistles, sometimes I like straight chocolate.  Up until very recently, I had not found the perfect classic chocolate layer cake – the kind you bring out topped with candles and accompanied by on off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday”.  The cake from Holly B’s was pretty good, tasty and easy, but the frosting amount was off and I find very few things more annoying than setting out to make a layer cake and having some part of it not work.

These are the times when you turn to a trusted source.  I get really excited about super seasonal cookbooks or single subject ones (as long as that single subject is something I like to cook and eat), but a good cook needs a few no-nonsense, big, all-inclusive, tested-to-perfection cookbooks in her collection.   How many of those are out there?  In my mind, not many.  I have The Joy of Cooking, The Essential New York Times Cookbook, and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.  Oh, and my new baby.

You know the folks at Cook’s Illustrated, right?  I have been getting their magazine for over ten years and have mentally thanked them countless times for coming up with perfect recipes and making mistakes in their testing process so that I don’t have to.  I’ve been using their book Baking Illustrated for years and it has the distinction of not a single note written in it because the recipes do exactly what they say they will.  Now those good people have come out with a single comprehensive volume called Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook, 2,000 Recipes from 20 Years of America’s Most Trusted Food Magazine.  (You can buy it here.)

For those of you who receive their magazine, you are used to reading the fascinating stories of how they come to the perfect recipes.  In this new very large book, they still include a bit of each story.  Each recipe is prefaced by a paragraph called “Why This Recipe Works”.  It’s not just recipes, the personality of the magazine still comes through.  You will still get to read tidbits about the testing process and also get valuable make-ahead tips for many of the recipes.  Oh yes, and the recipes.  If you have every made a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, you know that it turns out exactly as they say it will.  Every time.  Because this book is so comprehensive, you get everything from very basic (Foolproof Vinaigrette) to very fancy (Kahlúa Soufflé with Ground Espresso).  Am I gushing?  Is it clear that I love this book?

Good.  I, and the good people at Cook’s Illustrated, want you to have a copy.  All 2,000 recipes.  Just leave me a comment telling me if there is a perfect recipe you have been searching for.  I always love to get a sense of who my readers are and what you are cooking.  I will randomly pick a winner next Monday, October 24th.  You have until noon PDT that day to enter.  UPDATE:  Contest now closed.  Winner announced 10-25-11!

And now, back to cake.

Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake
Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook
Serves 10 to 12

I served this cake at a 50th birthday party after a large meal and along side an apple crisp.  I cut very small slices and served 12 with about half the cake left over.

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped coarse
¼ cup (¾ ounce) Dutch-processed cocoa
½ cup hot water
1¾ cups (12¼ ounces) sugar
1¾ cups (8¾ ounces) all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 large eggs plus 2 egg yolks, room temperature
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 12 pieces and softened

1 pound semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup (2 1/3 ounces) sugar
2 tablespoons corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
1¼ cups heavy cream

1.  For the cake:  Adjust the oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease two 9-inch round cake pans, line with parchment paper, grease parchment, and flour pans.  Combine chocolate cocoa, and hot water in medium heatproof bowl set over saucepan filled with 1 inch of barely simmering water and stir with  heatproof rubber spatula until chocolate is melted, about 2 minutes.  Add ½ cup sugar to chocolate mixture and stir until thick and glossy, 1 to 2 minutes.  Remove  bowl from heat; set aside to cool.

2.  Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt together in medium bowl.  Combine buttermilk and vanilla in small bowl.  Using stand mixer fitted with whisk, whip eggs and egg yolks on medium-low speed until combined, about 10 seconds.  Add remaining 1¼ cups sugar, increase speed to high, and whip until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.  Replace whisk with paddle.  Add cooled chocolate mixture to egg mixture and mix on medium speed until thoroughly combined, 30 to 45 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed.  Add butter, 1 piece at a time, mixing about 10 seconds after each addition.  Add flour in 3 additions, alternating with 2 additions of buttermilk mixture, mixing until incorporated after each addition (abut 15 seconds), scraping down bowl as needed (batter may appear curdled).  Mix at medium-low speed until batter is thoroughly combined, about 15 seconds.  Remove bowl from mixer and give batter final stir by hand.

3.  Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and smooth tops with rubber spatula.  Bake cake until toothpick inserted in centers comes out with few crumbs attached, 25 to 30 minutes.  Let cakes cool in pans on wire rack for 10 minutes.  Remove cakes from pans, discard parchment, and let cool completely, about 2 hours, before frosting.  (Cooled cakes can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and kept at room temperature for up to 1 day.  Wrapped tightly in plastic, then aluminum foil, cakes can be frozen for up to 1 month.  Defrost cakes at room temperature before unwrapping and frosting.)

4.  For the frosting:  Melt chocolate in heatproof bowl set over saucepan containing 1 inch of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth.  Remove from heat and set aside.  Meanwhile, melt butter in small saucepan over medium-low heat.  Increase heat to medium, add sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, and salt and stir with heatproof rubber spatula until sugar is dissolved, 4 to 5 minutes.  In bowl of sand mixer, combine melted chocolate, butter mixture, and cream and stir until thoroughly combined.

5.  Place mixer bowl over ice bath and stir mixture constantly with rubber spatula until frosting is thick and just beginning to harden against bowl, 1 to 2 minutes (frosting should be 70 degrees).  Fit stand mixer with paddle and beat frosting on medium-high speed until frosting is light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes.  Using rubber spatula, stir until completely smooth.

6.  To Assemble the Cake:  Line edges of cake platter with 4 strips of parchment paper to keep platter clean.  Place 1 cake layer on prepared platter.  Place about 1½ cups frosting in center of cake layer and, using large spatula, spread in even layer right to edge of cake.  Place second layer on top, making sure layers are aligned, then frost top in same manner as first layer, this time spreading frosting until slightly over edge.  Gather more frosting on tip of spatula and gently spread icing onto side of cake.  Smooth frosting by gently running edge of spatula around cake and leveling ridge that forms around top edge, or create billows by pressing back of spoon into frosting and twirling spoon as you lift away.  Carefully pull out pieces of parchment from beneath cake before serving.  (Assembled cake can be refrigerated for up to 1 day.  Bring to room temperature before serving.)

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