Spiced Pan Roasted Pear Cake

October 28, 2014
Spiced Pan Roasted Pear Cake

Spiced Pan Roasted Pear Cake

Where the sidewalk edges the church parking lot, a lone pear tree lives in a fistful of dirt against an old brick wall. There’s not even room for a dandelion. This solitary pear tree is never watered, fed or pruned, yet each season it drops a blanket of rotting fruit crying for recognition beside the holy path. This year Darlene sent a crew up ladders until a bushel of small, green, hard Seckels stood in the church office next to a stack of bags and a sign saying “free.” The pears, strong in character but weak in appearance, weren’t popular. Neither were they wormy, but they were freckled, streaked, blemished, and some misshapen. Visitors thinking of rosy-cheeked golden Bartletts and slender-necked russet Boscs in the supermarket shunned the local organic, ugly Seckels.

I noticed them, delighted at the prospect of giveaways, and scooped them up. I knew they’d need time to ripen and that they’d prefer the dark, so I spread them in the basement, covered them with newspapers and checked every few days. Three weeks later the pears had yellowed and begun to soften. Their juicy flesh liked a pinch of cinnamon and a sprinkle of brown sugar. . .and I remembered the Ballymaloe Spiced Pan Roasted Pear Cake. Reducing the butter and sugar from the original recipe makes a light teacake or a brunch pastry. Warm from the oven, it welcomes a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream for dessert.

Spiced Pan Roasted Pear Cake

1 oz. unsalted butter (2 tablespoons)

3 1/2 oz. brown sugar (1/2 cup)

small pinch salt

4 oz. all purpose flour (1 cup minus 3 tablespoons)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 extra large egg

3 1/2 oz. sugar (1/2 cup)

1/4 cup vegetable oil (or pure olive oil)

1/4 cup grated pear

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (use microplane)

6 small pears, peeled, halved, cored or 3 regular pears cut in sixths


Melt butter in 8-inch cast-iron skillet. Sprinkle on brown sugar and melt over low heat. Add tiny pinch salt.

Preheat oven to 350°.

Peel and cut pears.

Beat egg, add sugar, oil, ginger, and grated pear; whisk together thoroughly. Place flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon in sieve and sift over egg mixture. Beat together.

Circle pear halves, rounded side down, over brown sugar and butter, or pinwheel pear pieces around pan. Keep skillet over very LOW heat. Spread batter over pears. Bake at least 40-45 minutes or until well browned and tests done. If pears are especially juicy, the cake needs extra baking time to thoroughly cook the cake’s center. When the cake is deeply browned and tests done, remove from oven.

Allow cake to cool 5 minutes. Loosen edges and turn cake upside down onto flat serving plate or wire cooling rack. Scrape out any remaining bits of caramelized sugar and smooth it onto the cake sides. Serves 6-8.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon



Pasta Pronto

October 8, 2014
Pasta Pronto with Black Beans and Carrots

Pasta Pronto with Black Beans and Carrots

After Friday’s pizza and Sunday’s roast chicken, meatless Monday sounds just fine. Some years ago a rushed Italian mother of twins told me about this one-pot pasta supper, and I’ve had a quick fix treasure up my sleeve ever since.

Here pasta and vegetables cook together, then combine with warm garlic-infused olive oil plus grated Parmesan cheese for one of the most versatile and satisfying noodles in the book. Pasta shapes and veg varieties are limitless: asparagus or peas in the spring; green beans or zucchini in the summer; broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts or kale in the winter. Basically any noodle (wheat, or gluten free) and any veg that takes to a quick boil will work.

Once you’ve selected a vegetable and a pasta, you’ll need garlic, olive oil, crushed red pepper, Parm cheese, and you’re ready to go. Since the veg usually takes less cooking time than the pasta, start the pasta in boiling water and add cut veg 4-5 minutes later. Meanwhile, olive oil warms in a small pan along with an infusion of chopped garlic and crushed red pepper, while grated Parm waits in a bowl.

With a quick combination, dinner’s ready. I complemented this week’s veg pasta pronto with tomato and cumin-stewed black beans and carrots braised with ginger and preserved lemon, plus a bowl of homemade yogurt: a colorful feast for a meatless Monday.

Pasta Pronto with Broccoli

8-10 oz. trimmed broccoli

4-5 oz. linguine

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

½ teaspoon crushed red pepper or to taste

generous ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese


Trim broccoli or other selected vegetable into bite sized pieces. (If using broccoli stems, peel and slice). Grate cheese, chop garlic.

Bring 10 cups water to boil; salt generously. Add pasta and begin timing. (My pasta took 12 minutes, so I added the broccoli and sliced sprouts at the 6-minute mark.) Add veg with enough time to cook until tender: at least 4-6 minutes.

Meanwhile, warm olive oil in small skillet or saucepan. Add chopped garlic and pepper. Heat until garlic is fragrant and soft, but do not let it brown. Turn off heat and hold.

Once pasta and veg test done, reserve a small cup of the cooking water and drain pasta. Return drained pasta and broccoli to the cooking pan and add the warm garlic oil. Stir gently to combine adding the cheese a handful at a time. Stir after each addition to melt the cheese and form a coating sauce. Add a little of the reserved cooking water if the mix seems dry. Mound glorious greens and noodles on a serving dish and drizzle with little extra virgin oil if desired. Serves 2.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon



How to Make Yogurt

September 6, 2014
Homemade Yogurt Tomato and Yogurt Salad

Homemade Yogurt
Tomato and Yogurt Salad

When the last dog days of summer blaze, yogurt saves the supper. For me yogurt is essential year round. I’ve been making my own yogurt for over fifty years following guidelines from a Gujarati woman who once taught me the skill in a torrid dry season in Tanzania. Back then I was able to come by an occasional pint of fresh milk delivered to my kitchen door in a clean twenty-ounce brown beer bottle stoppered at the top with a wad of newspaper. Fresh milk was precious, needed sterilization and a way to keep it. Making yogurt was the answer.

In America yogurt wasn’t common during the ’40s and ’50s. When I tasted its tangy freshness for the first time alongsidespicy Indian food, it was something totally new. In fact, having first learned to enjoy yogurt with savories, I’ve never been able to go for it with sugared fruit so popular nowadays.

My Indian friend’s method for making yogurt was simple—no special equipment needed. If you have a heavy saucepan, a couple of glass jars and an insulated picnic box or a Styrofoam container and a heavy towel, you can make yogurt. People have been using this method for thousands of years. It’s nothing to be afraid of and can give you a way to preserve milk, make milk more digestible, and save lots of money. Yogurt may be used as a substitute for buttermilk, sour cream; homemade yogurt is so thick and creamy there’s no need to go for the Greek.

To begin you need a starter (bacteria that will grow in warm milk transforming lactase sugar in milk to lactic acid that thickens and lengthens the life of the milk). To find a starter, buy a small container of the best organic whole-milk plain yogurt you can find. Make sure there are no additives; the starter should contain only milk and yogurt culture—no sugars, flavorings or stabilizers. You will need to buy the culture only once. From then on, one batch of homemade yogurt will give you starter for the next batch.

Usually I make two quarts of yogurt at a time, but you can make any amount, even as little as one cup. I firmly believe in making whole-milk yogurt because it tastes better, and, used in small quantities, it’s worth the calories. Any type of cow, goat or sheep’s milk can be used.

First rinse a large, heavy saucepan with cold water and shake out water (this will help to prevent milk from sticking). Pour in selected amount of milk and place saucepan over moderate heat. Bring milk to a boil, stirring occasionally. (Lay wooden spoon used for stirring across top of saucepan—this will help prevent a boil-over.) Let the milk come to a boil that foams and rises in the saucepan; take care to remove from heat before any milk spills over. Set saucepan away from heat and let milk cool. Stir from time to time to prevent a skin from forming over milk (don’t worry, though, if a skin forms; the yogurt culture will break down the skin in the finished product).

Ready the jars and lids. Make sure jars and lids are impeccably clean. Run them through a dishwasher or wash with dish soap and rinse with very hot water. I prefer to use pint jars, but any size will do, from jam jars to quart jars.

As milk is cooling, place a rounded soup-spoonful of yogurt (or yogurt from your last making) in the bottom of each clean jar. Allow boiled milk to cool until you can hold a scrupulously clean pinkie finger in the milk and count to ten, or ten seconds. At this point the milk is lukewarm and will not kill the bacteria, which is a living organism. Pour the lukewarm boiled milk into the culture-inoculated jars; stir; screw on the lids and place the warm jars in an insulated picnic box, Styrofoam box or small cardboard box lined with a soft towel. Fold the towel over the jars; clip on the lid and allow the box to rest undisturbed at room temperature for a few hours.

In summer yogurt may be ready in four hours; in winter it may take eight to ten hours to set. Yogurt is ready when liquid milk has turned into solid custard in jars. There will be a little liquid whey floating on the top, and vertical ridges may show along the sides of the jars. Remove jars from box and refrigerate. If unopened, yogurt will keep for weeks. I once accidentally found a forgotten jar of yogurt that had been in the back of my fridge for three months; it was perfectly good.

When you spoon yogurt from the jar, a pool of whey will ooze into that space. The liquid whey is also good; it can be poured into a sauce, a soup, added to a salad dressing or a smoothie. People are paying big bucks these days to buy powdered health-giving whey, but yours is a free byproduct from your homemade yogurt. This ancient craft of preserving milk is a miracle! Make it your own today!

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon


Stuffed Giant Zucchini

August 14, 2014
Stuffed giant zucchini

Stuffed giant zucchini

Every year I dutifully plant a few zucchini seeds in a sunny mound at my community garden plot. I water, weed, and wish for squash, but I usually get only lush leaves and a bounty of blossoms. While other gardeners are flinging oversized, unwanted zuccs onto the compost heap, I keep searching for some slender young squash among the wide, prickly greens. I’ve vowed to mind my plants carefully, never to let a homegrown vegetable go to waste. Yesterday after almost daily searching, I glimpsed a gigantic zucchini right in the middle of my leafy plant. I still can’t imagine how I missed it, but garden sprites are not to be outdone.

I was unwilling to let my handsome—though too large to sauté—squash go to waste. Not a fan of zucchini bread or muffins (in fruit-laced baked goods I much prefer pumpkin or banana), I set out to stuff the squash. First I rid it of as much excess water as possible, then whipped up a stuffing of aromatics and the grated flesh. With just a little cheese added, it’s a great vegetarian dish; it can be baked along with a chicken or a few loaves in the oven and is tasty either warm or at room temperature. It won’t freeze but, refrigerated, it will make enough to stretch out simple suppers for several days.

The following isn’t a recipe with measurements but, rather, a guideline. The process will work for any kind of summer squash.

Stuffed Zucchini

Overgrown zucchini


Olive oil


Garlic, chili, fresh herbs

Cooked brown rice if available

Crumbled feta (optional)

Soft breadcrumbs

Peel the zucchini; cut in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard seeds. Grate half of the squash and the end pieces of the other half on the large holes of a box grater. Place the grated squash in a bowl and toss generously with salt. Also salt the scooped out other half. Let salt draw water from the vegetable for at least an hour.

Place grated squash in a strainer and squeeze out the water. Taste to make sure it isn’t overly salty. (If so, rinse, drain, and squeeze.) Drain and wipe water from squash boat. Line a long loaf pan (or cut squash boat in half and use two pans if you don’t have a long one) with overhanging parchment, brush bottom with oil and add the hollowed squash half.

Meanwhile, sauté an onion in olive oil until soft, add as much chopped garlic as you like, a good handful of chopped fresh herbs (rosemary, thyme, oregano, or whatever you have), and a bit of chopped fresh green or red chili for some zing. Once the aromatics are fragrant, add the squeezed grated squash and cook over moderately high heat, stirring often until the squash is wilted and no longer watery. Add a couple spoonfuls of cooked brown or white rice if you have some, plus a nice handful of feta crumbles. Spoon the filling into the boat, top with fresh breadcrumbs, sprinkle generously with olive oil, and bake either slowly or quickly (according to whatever else is in the oven) until zucchini is tender and the crumbs browned. Use the parchment sling to lift the stuffed squash from the baking pan. Serve with lime wedges or salsa if desired. Organic edibles saved!

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon


Fresh Corn Polenta

August 6, 2014
Fresh Corn Polenta with braised kale, green beans and tomato

Fresh Corn Polenta with braised kale, green beans and tomato

Corn has now arrived in its August abundance. Great heaps of green husk-covered ears cover tables in local farmers’ markets. At this the time of year if I see people buying shipped-in fresh corn in the supermarket, I want to scream. I ask myself how can I encourage more shoppers to make the mini-effort to buy directly from farmers. Here I am nestled in the Midwest where surrounding rural areas grow the best sweet corn on the planet. Currently the most popular variety of corn is a super-sweet bicolor hybrid; even though the full cobs look alike, their flavor differs from vendor to vendor.

The old-fashioned way of eating these fresh “roasting ears” is to boil them fast and chomp kernels off the cob. I vividly remember summer suppers when we put on a pot of water to boil before we headed out to the garden. With an armload of corn, we’d first stop by the compost pile to top and tail the ears with a sharp knife before pulling off the shucks and brushing the silks. Into the kitchen, the corn spent three minutes in boiling water; then we piled it onto a platter to set alongside a saucer of home-churned butter and a saltshaker. No more than ten minutes elapsed between picking and eating.

When you’ve had enough corn on the cob for the week, this recipe for fresh polenta offers the best “creamed corn” I’ve ever tasted. It’s a snap to prepare, includes few ingredients, and is delicious hot or at room temp with any number of braised or roasted vegetables or chicken off the grill.

Fresh Corn Polenta

4 full ears sweet corn, shucked

2-3 teaspoons butter

pinch salt

1-2 tablespoons fresh goat’s cheese or grated Parmesan

Set a shallow platter in the bottom of the sink (for easier clean up), and using the large holes of a box grater placed on the platter, grate the corn kernels from the cobs. Use a paring knife to scrape more of the corn pulp from the cobs*. Measure about 2 cups.

Heat butter in a heavy saucepan. When it foams, add the cut corn and cook through, stirring occasionally, 3-5 minutes or until thickened. Add a pinch of salt and crumble in the goat’s cheese, stirring to melt. Taste for seasonings and it’s ready to go. The fresh corn polenta may be served at once, at room temperature or it may be chilled and reheated later.

Serves 2-4.

*For the frugal cook—break the scraped cobs in half, place snugly in a saucepan. Barely cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes. Lift cobs from water, cool and scrape out the remaining corn pulp with a paring knife. Using a blender, puree the broth and pulp. Use as a delicious vegetable stock.


Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon





Red Currant Jam

July 18, 2014
Red Currants

Red Currants

Summer berries line up in little square boxes tempting us like precious jewels. Strawberries are gone from our farmers’ market, and we now see red, black or golden raspberries, and blueberries. The fairest and costliest of all are red currants. They glisten, tiny bright red berries on slender green stems; a mini-box for three dollars will scarcely make a pudding for two. By chance I recently had permission to clean a fruit-laden red currant bush. After an hour of careful picking, I came home with two pounds of loot and a profound appreciation for the tedious work.

Whenever we mention red currants, there’s confusion about the dry currant and the fresh currant. Fresh currants and dry Zante currants are not related in any way except by name, which is basically a misnomer. The Zante currants we add to cakes are dried small seedless raisins originally from the Greek island of Zakynthos. Once called Corinthian raisins, the name was soon shortened to currants.

In America the only place we commonly see red currants is in currant jelly used to glaze red fruit tarts, or in Cumberland sauce for ham. The most famous of all red currant preserves is the French Bar le Duc, known as the most expensive jam in the world. To create this preserve women use goose quills to remove the small seeds from each red berry. If you’re lucky enough to have a box of fresh currants, here’s a simple method to bring the flavor of this exquisite jam to your own table.

Red Currant Jam

Red Currant Jam

Red Currant Jam

1 lb. fresh red currants

14 oz. (2 cups) sugar

Rinse red currants, no need to remove stems. Film the bottom of a heavy pot with water, about 2 oz. (¼ cup). Add currants, cover and cook on medium heat until berries have burst. Cool slightly and pass the fruit through a food mill using a disk with small holes. Measure the resulting puree. If you have a pound, or two cups, of fruit puree, you will need the full two cups of sugar to make a tart jam.

Scald two 10-12 oz. jam jars with twist-on vacuum lids. Keep the jars and lids hot in a small pan of shallow simmering water. Return the currant puree to the jam pot; bring to a boil; add sugar; stir to dissolve and return to a boil. Boil steadily for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, for a firm jam, and just over 4 minutes for a softer preserve. (At this point you may check for the set by seeing if the jam coats a spoon or by dropping a half-teaspoon onto a cold saucer. Currants are high in pectin and the jam should set up quickly.) If the jam seems runny, boil another minute.

Remove from heat and skim any foam (save for your toast), and, using a canning funnel, ladle the hot preserve into the hot jars. Wipe the tops of the jars clean if any jam has dripped. Lift the hot lids from the water and screw on immediately. Allow the jam to cool to room temperature (during which time the lids should “pop” to show a seal.) To be on the safe side, refrigerate jam until ready to use.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon


Strawberry Shortcake

June 24, 2014
Strawberry Shortcake

Strawberry Shortcake

My granddaughters and I slipped out of the big blue van and peered down from the fifth floor of the parking garage next to the Evanston Farmers’ Market. There they were, swaths of red spilling across long tables: strawberries. We trotted downstairs with baskets in hand, looking for the best berries. They were all delicious, and I finally made my pick from a Michigan farmer and her two sons whose deep ruby berries caught my eye. We tasted the fruit scarlet to the core, dripping with juice. I cradled the boxes and vowed never to look at another store-bought Driscoll. It was time to pay more for the real thing. They wouldn’t be around long; they wouldn’t come in plastic clamshells; they wouldn’t keep all week in the fridge. It was time for Strawberry Shortcake.

Classic American Strawberry Shortcake is a buttery sweet biscuit, split and filled with sugared berries and whipped cream. It’s pure indulgence—not a low-fat concept—something not to be missed, at least once a year. The berries must be soft and juicy; cold storage supermarket berries will never do. The biscuit dough must be “short” or rich with butter—thus shortbread cookies, shortcake, shortening (vegetable fat). I’m sticking with pure butter for my shortcake and gilding the lily with heavy cream for the liquid. These feather-light little cakes are perfect nests for juicy spoonfuls of sliced berries and clouds of whipped cream. If they seem like too much for dessert, try them for breakfast or brunch. The strawberry fields won’t be with us forever.

A note on whipping cream: Look for heavy cream that is not ultra-pasteurized. The long-life version (ultra-pasteurized) is difficult to whip and has a slightly “cooked” flavor. Ultra- pasteurized dairy products are heated 100° higher than regular pasteurized dairy items and have stabilizing additives such as carrageenan. For this once-a-year treat, pure pasteurized heavy cream is your best bet.

Cream Biscuit Shortcakes

1 cup all-purpose flour (5 oz.)

1½ tablespoons powdered sugar

1½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt (a tiny bit more if using unsalted butter)

2 tablespoons butter (1 oz.)

½ cup + 1 scant tablespoon cream

sugar to sprinkle on tops

Preheat oven to 400°.

Sift flour, powdered sugar, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Slice over the chilled butter and rub in with fingertips. Make a well in center of flour mixture, pour in ½ cup cream and stir together with fingertips. Add extra cream if dough seems dry. Roll dough into a ball. Knead just a few turns on lightly floured counter. Pat or roll into a circle at least ½ inch thick. Stamp out circles with 2-inch cutter and place on baking sheet. Reroll scrapes to cut more circles. Brush tops with water and sprinkle with sugar. Bake about 12 minutes or until golden. Makes 6-8 shortcakes.

Split while warm and fill with sliced, sugared berries and whipped cream; serve with more berries.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon





Sautéed Whitefish

June 8, 2014
whitefish with asparagus

whitefish with asparagus

A general rule: foods that grow together go together. Likewise, harvests that come to market at the same time of year often make the best combinations. This marriage of seasonal produce was a happy occurrence for us the other evening when I paired local asparagus with fresh whitefish just in from Lake Superior. Most of this past winter the Great Lakes were frozen over; fishing came to a halt. Spring now offers abundant, juicy whitefish. If fresh wild-caught whitefish might seem uninteresting, with a proper hand over the pan, these fillets are succulent fare.

Before we get to the fish, which will cook in six to seven minutes, let’s consider the asparagus. You’ll want to use every morsel of this treasured local crop, so plan to quickly blanch the top six inches of each spear and slice the lower segments for a vegetable braise. Combined with onion, a small potato, garlic, a little chili and fresh herbs, the tender braised asparagus will form a base for the quickly sautéed fish. Meanwhile, the blanched asparagus spears, lightly glazed with butter or olive oil next to a pool of yogurt mint sauce, will complete the plate. Add a sprinkle of fresh mint and some chive flowers for something better than restaurant fare.

Lake Whitefish, a freshwater fish that’s a subfamily of the salmon, are indigenous to our North American Great Lakes. They usually come to market as skin-on fillets (though if you ever see whitefish whole, they are excellent baked or grilled; bone-in fish always have more flavor and nutrition than fillets). The skin may be eaten; it’s delicious.

Sautéed Whitefish with Braised Asparagus

1 tablespoon olive oil

½ cup diced onion

1–2 cloves garlic minced

2–3 sliced chopped Serrano chili (optional)

1 small diced potato, ½ cup

¼ cup chicken stock or water

sliced tender ends from 1 lb. asparagus (a cup or more)

fresh herbs to taste—garlic chives, sorrel, mint

1–2 tablespoons heavy cream (optional)

salt and pepper


12 oz fillet whitefish cut in three portions

flour seasoned with salt and pepper

½ tablespoon olive oil


yogurt mint sauce (see previous entry, May 29, 2014)

Gently sweat the onion, garlic and chili in 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add diced potato, chicken stock or water, asparagus ends, salt. Cover and cook until potato and asparagus are tender. Add fresh herbs and simmer a few more minutes. Taste for seasonings, adding a little lemon juice if you have no sorrel and a spoonful of cream for luxury.

Set braised veg aside on a warm corner of the stove while you blanch the asparagus tops and sauté the fish. The asparagus will cook perfectly in three minutes in boiling, salted water. To sauté the fish heat a heavy cast iron skillet and film it with half a tablespoon oil.

When the oil shimmers with heat, sprinkle the top of the fish pieces with kosher salt and dredge the skin side in season flour. Shake off any excess and place fish skin side down in the hot oil. Allow the fish to cook for 3–4 minutes or until nicely browned underneath.

Reduce heat to moderate, cover and cook another 3 minutes or just until the top loses the raw look, turning opaquely white. While waiting for the fish, roll the cooked, drained asparagus in melted butter or olive oil.

To serve, mound a spoonful of the braised veg on the plate top with a piece of fish and lay asparagus spears at the side along with a pool of yogurt mint sauce. Enough for 2–3.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon




Mint Pesto

May 29, 2014
Purple Asparagus with Mint Pesto and Mint Dipping Sauce

Purple Asparagus with Mint Pesto and Mint Dipping Sauce

Spring mint shoots up in lush abundance. Early rains keep it coming. Its determined taproot spreads faster than weeds and will take over a garden plot in a season. Even with ruthless cutting and uprooting, mint marches on. It’s fragrant, bright green, and delicious. I keep picking it, trying to use a handful in dinner every evening. As a spring tonic it’s healthy; it aids digestion, calms nerves, and clears a winter cough. So before ripping mint out of your flowerbeds, keep some—and enjoy!

The wild plant I’m referring to here is plain spearmint. This is true mint, not to be confused with peppermint, pineapple mint, or chocolate mint. These varieties all have a place, but they seldom work in savory foods the way spearmint does. Spearmint is popular in peasant foods all over the world and is especially at home in India, the Levant, and North Africa. Mint stars in salads, fresh chutneys, raitas, stews, and teas.

I enjoy having a jar of mint pesto on hand to toss with the fresh asparagus we’ve been getting from our local farmers’ market. Pesto doesn’t always have to be basil, pine nuts, and cheese. After all, it’s basically pounded—think pestle—herbs, and it tastes freshest when it’s crushed in a marble or stone mortar away from the heat-producing motor of a blender or processor. This simple pesto of fresh mint leaves, garlic, salt, and olive oil will dress any lightly cooked vegetable, enliven steamed potatoes, or glaze a grilled fish fillet.

Mint Pesto

2½ oz. bunch fresh mint or 2 loose cups mint leaves, washed and dried

l large or 2 small cloves garlic

¼ teaspoon coarse salt

2-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Use a sharp knife to cut mint leaves into fine chiffonade. (Cup a bunch of leaves in one hand and swiftly chop through them, continually retracting your fingers.) Slice peeled garlic.

Pound sliced garlic with salt using a mortar and pestle. Add the shredded mint a handful at a time crushing it to a rough paste. Continue until all the mint is pulverized. Work in the olive oil a tablespoon at a time. Store in a glass jar in fridge until ready to use. Makes ¼ cup fresh mint pesto.

Use to flavor vegetables along with a little of the cooking water. Stir a teaspoon into vinaigrette dressing or mix into plain yogurt for a mint dipping sauce.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon


May Birthday Cake

May 7, 2014
 Almond cake on antique violet plate

Almond cake on antique violet plate

In the back room of Home Style Bakery where icing was whipped in deep bowls, tinted pastel shades and piped into scrolls, roses, and lacy letters, birthday cake spelled delight. Even as a young girl, I knew if I wanted one of these cakes, I’d better learn to make it myself. So began a life-long love of birthday baking. I copied the masters, practiced on cardboard with Crisco until the pastry bag became an extension of my hand. My children had cakes of billowing doll dresses, trains, flower gardens, and trees. With the passage of time we all found the baked portions more interesting than the icing. My daughter opted for pound cake, my son for Swiss butter cream–filled sponge, and I found mine in a dense volume from the legendary Paul Bocuse.

I had once pored over Bocuse’s book, though I no longer own it nor remember his exact title. Yet I still have the remnant of his Pain de Gênes penciled in a recipe notebook. Each May I leaf through its pages to find this special cake and use the remainder of almond paste saved from my Christmas stollen. Perfect in its simplicity, this delicate item wants no icing and will take you back in time as you savor its sweetness with a cup of strong coffee or a pot of tea.

This cake is not a quick mix, chemically leavened layer, but a long-beaten, carefully folded, naturally rising confection. It may test patience, but once mastered, it’s a gem. Measuring is crucial, and although I’ve listed cup alternatives, there’s no substitute for an accurate scale.

 Pain de Gênes (French Almond Cake)

4 oz. almond paste (scent half cup)

¼ teaspoon almond extract

½ teaspoon vanilla

1 tiny drop oil of anise (optional)

3 large eggs (almost 5 fl. oz.)

pinch salt (scant 1/8 teaspoon)

2 oz. unsalted butter, melted (1/2 stick)

3 ½ oz. sugar (1/2 cup)

2 ½ oz. bleached all purpose flour (1/2 cup)

Have all ingredients at room temperature. Butter and flour 1  7-inch deep round cake tin or 2 small loaf pans (6 x 3 ½ inches). Preheat oven to 350°.

Crumble almond paste in the bottom of mixing bowl for stand mixer. Add extracts, salt and optional anise. Attach paddle beater. Using moderate speed, add eggs one at a time, beating several minutes after each addition until the mixture looks like a thick even cream. Alternate three ounces of sugar after adding each egg. The egg, almond paste, sugar mixture should be beaten until it is light and thick enough to form a figure 8 when the beater is lifted from the mass. This process will take at least 10-12 minutes of continuous beating.

Meanwhile sift the flour and the remaining half-ounce of sugar three times, and make sure the butter is melted and cooled to lukewarm.

When the egg mass tests ready, remove from stand mixer, clean off paddle and fold the sifted flour/sugar in three additions using a rubber spatula. Fold the melted, clear butter into the batter thoroughly in three additions. Turn the cake into the prepared tins, smoothing the top. Place in the preheated oven and reduce the oven temperature to 325°. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until tests done. Allow cake to rest in the baking tin for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool.

Makes 1 round layer or two small loaves. Store in an airtight tin to enjoy for a week.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon


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