Day of the Bread

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We are quickly approaching the season of the creepy creepers. But for me, Halloween has become not as scary as it is annoying. I am not intimidated by the Styrofoam headstones and giant fluorescent green spiderwebs in my neighbor’s yard. I would like to never hear “Monster Mash” again. I am not excited by pumpkin-flavored anything, orange-and-black–colored anything or dry ice. And I am not impressed by your slutty nurse, slutty pirate or slutty crossing guard costume. I have been there and done that — and I am over it.

Of course, this “get off my lawn” attitude is a direct result of my kids running off to college. There they are having the kind of Halloween one should have in college, the kind I used to have — no money but lots of ingenuity. We drank whatever was cheap and made costumes with whatever was lying around. I was a toilet-paper mummy. My roommate went as a condom in a wetsuit with a Ziploc bag on her head. 

When you’re young, Halloween still has some danger involved. Even if kids know their neighborhood, walking around it in the dark is creepy. Anything could happen. Young adults use the holiday to engage in behaviors that are sketchy at best — because they can get away with it. Meanwhile, I am here, waiting in vain with my bowl of mini candy bars.  My street has a slight incline, which is usually too daunting for trick-or-treaters. The only thing dangerous about my Halloweens now is the likelihood that I will be the one eating this entire bowl of mini candy bars on Nov. 1.  

I wish Halloween did impress me. I wish I could get scared. I wish I believed in ghosts, or monsters, or magic, or the walking dead or even evil people. But I don’t. I just wasn’t raised to fear anything other than my own stupidity. But in other parts of the world people not only believe in ghosts, they celebrate them. In Japan, ancestors’ spirits are celebrated at Obon, a holiday sometime in mid-July or August, when your dead relatives are believed to come back for a visit. The Buddhist and Taoist traditions of the Hungry Ghost Festival recognize a monthlong opening of the doors between us and the netherworld. During this time, spirits are said to roam freely — a belief that keeps many families indoors after the sun goes down. In Cambodia, Pchum Ben is one of the most important Khmer holidays. During this two-week period the divide between our world and the world of our ancestors is at its thinnest, allowing them to return and atone for their past sins.  

Mexico’s spooky celebration is Dia de los Muertos, which, if you were raised in California, you know very well. This holiday is linked to both pre-Columbian funerary traditions and Catholicism’s remembrance of the departed, Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day). As in all of these festivals that honor our departed, there is food involved.  

I am a fan of this holiday, even though I am an absolute gringa. I particularly enjoy the dressing of altars or gravesites to honor and remember the dead. The favorite food and drink of the departed, photos, memorabilia and marigolds (the flower of the dead) are laid out to encourage the ghostly souls to visit and hear how they are remembered, and still loved. It’s a nice idea, and Mexico does it so well that in 2008 it was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, keeping company with such other intangibles as the tango, falconry and Kabuki theater. 

These festivals are definitely more meaningful than trick-or-treating, and they have the added bonus of actually being a bit scary — certainly more so than that rubber spider, candied apple or superhero costume (or slutty superhero costume).  

 Pan de Muerto 

I hope my kids make this bread for me when I’m an ancestor. I would totally come back for its rich, buttery, spicy crumb. If I become a ghost, I will just come back to eat and hug. I won’t be scary. Much. Maybe a little. In a nice, fun way — like Casper.  


-½ cup milk, lukewarm (about 99°— just slightly warmer than body temperature)

-1 tablespoon granulated yeast

-1½ cups bread flour 

-½ teaspoon cinnamon 

-1 teaspoon anise seeds, toasted and ground 

-Grated zest of 1 orange

-1½ teaspoons salt

-3 eggs

-3 tablespoons brown sugar

-6 ounces (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened

-1 to 2 cups all-purpose flour, as needed

-1 egg

-1 tablespoon water

-1 tablespoon granulated sugar


1. In a large bowl (or the bowl of a standing mixer) combine milk and yeast. Stir to dissolve, then set aside until bubbly, about 10 minutes. 

2. Stir in bread flour (I like to use a fork because it is easier to clean), cinnamon, anise, orange zest and salt. Add eggs one at a time, then brown sugar and softened butter. Slowly begin adding more flour until a soft dough is formed. Turn the dough out onto the counter and knead it for 8 to 10 minutes.  Add more flour as necessary to keep the dough from becoming sticky, but not so much that it is too stiff to knead. (The amount of flour needed will vary with the temperature, humidity, moisture content of butter and eggs, the brand of flour and the accuracy of your measurements; don’t worry about it though — just keep adding as needed). When the dough is smooth and elastic, place it in a bowl, cover with a moist towel and set aside to double in volume — about 1 to 2 hours. (It will rise faster in a warm spot.)

3. When the dough has doubled, turn it out onto your counter and divide it into two unequal pieces, one about twice as large as the other. Roll the large piece into a round, tight ball. Coat a baking sheet with pan spray and place the large round loaf on it, seam–side-down. Whisk together the egg and water into an egg wash, and brush it over the surface of the loaf.

4. Divide the smaller piece of dough into three parts. Roll one into a ball, and fashion that into a skull. With the other two pieces, roll two ropes with knobby ends, for crossbones. Place these on top of the round loaf, then egg–wash them. Dust the whole thing lightly with sugar and set aside to proof (rise for the final time before baking) for 10 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350°.  

5. When the loaf is proofed (which means just slightly puffed), bake it for 30 minutes, then rotate the pan and bake another 30 minutes. The loaf should be golden brown all over, with an internal temperature of 210°.  (It is best to check, as large loaves sometimes remain doughy in the middle.) If the loaf is very brown but not done in the middle, turn the heat down to 300°, tent it with foil, and continue to cook as needed.

6. Cool the loaf completely before serving — or taking it to the cemetery. Leftovers make great French toast.   



Paste di Mandorla

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sic - cake

(They made me a cake!)

I am a lucky chef.  I have traveled the globe training cooks in the US Navy.  Next to my kids, my work in the Navy has been my greatest achievement.  I have met so many amazing people, seen amazing places (Join the Navy-See the World!), and finally understood the beauty of service.

On one trip, I got to visit southern Sicily, and stayed at the Naval Air Station Sigonella.  I worked with the native Sicilian kitchen staff at the base Galley, helped them improve Navy food, taught some American techniques,  and tried to help American service men and women appreciate the local Sicilian cuisine.

The cooks and bakers were all older Sicilian men … not a girl in sight.  They were super sweet, and so knowledgeable – but they needed help communicating with their American Navy bosses. This is ironic, because I do not speak Italian, and very few of them spoke English. I do, however, speak kitchen, cook, and baker, which are international languages.

The cooks totally embraced me – it was the most welcoming post of my career, and I reaped the benefits. Despite our training sessions, which included me showing them (embarrassingly) how to make macaroni and cheese and meatloaf the way Americans like it –  I was, in the off hours, given  a sacks of local cheese, family label olive oil, specialty pastry, family recipes, and a special cooking lesson on the best cookie ever, which I will share with you lucky peeps now.

sic me n sal

 Of course his name is Sal.  Doesn’t he look like a Sal?!?!

sicily crewThe Sigonella Lunch Crew sic - has gelato Sicily=Gelato

This recipe was made almonds (mandorla in Italian), but I was told it is frequently made with pistachio, too. I know you can purchase almond flour, but it is not as good as fresh ground.

On Memorial Day, in addition to our defenders, I like to remember the support staff.  They are the one’s I know the best. I can never forget that Food Service is vital. Food boosts morale, and is, therefore, vital to successful defense.  I believe this with my whole heart.  We need to improve it.  Call your representative.

Happy Memorial Day to everyone, especially all my CS’s !!!      Miss you!


1 pound almonds, ground to a fine flour
1 pound powdered sugar
Grated zest of large, really good lemon
1 tablespoon Amaretto (or vanilla)
2 tablespoons honey
4 egg whites, whipped stiff


  1. Combine ground almonds, sugar, zest, amaretto, and honey in a mixer with a paddle and combine well. Slowly add egg whites, which will bind the dough together. You may need more or less egg whites depending on the grind of your almonds. Beat on medium speed for 3-5 minutes. The dough will come together, sand should be tacky, but easy to handle and roll.  You can add more powdered sugar if necessary.
  2. Turn dough out onto a work surface dusted with powdered sugar. Roll into inch-thick ropes, and cut off into 2-3 inch pieces. Roll in powdered sugar, Then pinch the short rope into a poochy “S” shape. Dough may also be rolled into balls and decorated with a cherry in the middle.
  3. Bake at 350˚F until just barely brown. Cool completely before you try to eat it. The outer crust will be crisp, but the inside will be soft and chewy.



**OK … Not the best picture I ever took, but fer sher the best cookie ever!

Irish Soda Bread

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irish soda bread
Let me just say that I have no Irish ancestry, and I therefore have no particular affinity for Saint Patrick’s Day. My Swedish grandmother used to send me St Patrick’s Day cards, and I wore green as a kid (purely self-preservation), but I am a Viking from top to bottom. If you thought I was Irish, you probably knew me in college when I’d use anything as an excuse to party.

I try not to get caught up in the hoopla, but I cannot help making Corned Beef and Soda Bread this week. For one thing, it is expected of me. For another, they’re pretty good foods which, I am sad to say, are all but forgotten the rest of the year.

I hate to be among the pack of food writers offering Soda Bread recipes this week, but I actually love this recipe.   I used to teach this during the cut-in lesson when I worked at the big schools. It is an often forgotten member of that family, overshadowed by stuck-up scones and primadonna pie dough.

I like this classic version with caraway and raisins, but it’s also fun to create your own. The salty crumb is offset nicely by a hint of sweetness. Try some other dried fruits such as dates, Armagnac soaked prunes, or chunks of ripe banana. I also love to add fresh herbs, which are currently plentiful in the backyard. Try rosemary and raisin, thyme and lemon zest, or sage with some candied ginger. Better yet, come up with your own flavor combination. (Looking for ideas? The Complete Idiots Guide to Spices and Herbs … by me … has a list of great flavor pairs.)


1/4 cup good Irish whiskey
1 cup golden raisins
2 tablespoons caraway seeds, toasted, cooled and ground
3-1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. kosher salt
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cold, and diced into small cubes
1-3/4 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup honey
2 tablespoons milk


  1. In a small bowl combine whiskey and raisins. Add hot water until raisins are submerged. Let stand overnight, or at least 1 hour.
  2. Meanwhile, toast caraway in a dry skillet until just fragrant, about 30-60 seconds. Remove immediately from pan and cool, then grind and set aside.
  3. In a large bowl combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt, and whisk together to aerate. Add butter and cut-in until the mixture resembles a course meal. Mix in drained raisins and caraway.
  4. Whisk together buttermilk and honey. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in buttermilk. Stir to moisten, then turn dough out onto a well floured work surface. Using a plastic scraper or rubber spatula, fold the dough over onto itself 6-8 times. (This is NOT kneading, but more like gently compacting the ingredients.)
  5. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Form dough into one round loaf and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Brush generously with milk, then cut an “x” in the top of the dough to facilitate the dough’s expansion. Let the dough stand for 10 minutes before baking. (This gives the dry ingredients a chance to absorb all the moisture, which lets the leavening work to full potential, in turn making the bread a little lighter.) Bake for 35-45 minutes until the crust is a deep golden brown, and the loaf sounds hollow inside when thumped. Cool a little, then lob off a piece and slather it with butter.


Puff Pastry (Pate Feuilletee)

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puff pastry(1)
Last week I gave a Puff Pastry lesson to a couple friends, and it reminded me of how much I love making this dough. Yes, it is a major pain in the butter. But there are few recipes that are ultimately this rewarding to make.

I don’ care what anyone says. There is a HUGE difference between frozen store-bought puff and homemade. First, store bought is usually made with highly processed butter-flavored vegetable shortening. Even if you couldn’t tell the difference by taste (which you can) you’d recognize it by the film it leaves in your mouth after you eat it. (I agree… disgusting.) I prefer cooking with butter for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is an animal fat that melts at body temperature. Vegetable-based fat needs a higher temperature to melt, and therefore lingers on the palette like teenage girls at the stage door after a Ke$ha concert. (Note to self…change spelling of name to Le$lie.)

Once it’s made, puff pastry can be frozen in sheets and stored for weeks. Nothing beats being able to whip up cheese straws or palmiers from a piece of homemade puff when those unexpected guest drop by. (Although beware. Once you start being impressive at a moment’s notice, expectations go WAY up.)

This recipe has two components: a butter portion and a dough portion, which then get folded or “turned” together. (See Lamination if you need help turning.) It also needs a few hours of attention. But it’s worth it! Next time I’ll give you some brilliant recipes for showing off your puff. (That is not a euphemism.)


Butter Block (butter portion):

2 lb. 3 oz. unsalted butter
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 oz. kosher salt
8 (3/4) oz. bread flour


  1. Combine all ingredients in a mixer with the paddle attachment and beat until smooth and lump free.
  2. Scrape out onto a a sheet of parchment or plastic and form into 12″ square. (It will be about 1-2 inches thick.) Wrap up and chill while Deutremp is being made (no more than 30 minutes). (This stage can be done by hand with a sturdy spoon.)


Deutremp (dough portion):

16 fl oz. water
1 oz. kosher salt

6 oz. cake flour
1 lb. 6 oz. bread flour

3 oz. unsalted butter, softened


  1. Combine water and salt in a mixer (I just use the same butter-block mixer … don’t bother washing it) with a dough hook and stir briefly. Add flours and butter and knead for 8-10 minutes. (This stage can be done by hand if you enjoy that sort of thing.)
  2. Turn dough out onto a floured surface and form into a smooth ball. Cover and rest 10 minutes. Then roll the dough into a square, about 2-inches larger than butter block. (To get it into a square, cut a large “X” in the top and press each quarter of dough that pops open down towards the table. These will start forming the corners of your square.)
  3. Place butter block on top of Deutremp “on point”, which means the butter square is set down as a diamond on top of the dough square. Wrap Deutremp over butter like an envelope, completely concealing butter.
  4. Roll into large rectangle (the size of a full sheet-pan), and proceed with the first double turn. Chill 30 minutes and repeat for a total of 4 double turns, resting 30 minutes between each. After the final turn rest the dough 30 minutes, then roll out to 1/2-inch thick sheet for use or for storage in the freezer.