Blueberry Muffins

July 29, 2016

blueberry muffinsMG_1380Baskets of blueberries are rolling in from Michigan, one of the top producers of America’s favorite summer berry. Now touted as a superfood, everybody loves blueberries. They’re sometimes a bit bland, but they are good for us and we prize them. The blueberries shipped in from Chili and beyond that we find in the supermarkets in winter have little flavor, but those fresh off the bush that we see in our summer farmers markets are now at their tastiest peak. Just picked ripe blueberries bursting with juice are perfect for eating out of hand, sprinkling on cereal, adding to a salad or baking into a pie. Their tender gentle sweetness charms us all.

Before I ever had a slice of blueberry pie, I’d enjoyed blueberry muffins. Somehow back decades ago in the Southwest we found them frozen and were treated to my dad’s freshly baked (from scratch, of course) blueberry muffins on Easter morning after the sunrise service up on the Colorado National Monument. Although I enjoy the berries raw. I think they are at their peak of flavor when cooked. Blueberries in a pie, a cobbler, a sauce or in muffins take on a richer dimension of deliciousness.

Muffins have almost become cupcakes. The traditional stir and bake breakfast muffins in my mother’s 1942 Inglenook Cookbook have 1 tablespoon sugar for each cup of flour while our current standard muffin recipes average 6 tablespoons of sugar per cup of flour. The following easy recipe at least bumps up the nutrition quota with wholewheat pastry flour and plenty of berries, but admittedly it’s a cupcake. My granddaughters like them for breakfast, but I prefer them for a teacake. These muffins keep well for a couple of days in a tin or may be frozen for a few weeks.

Blueberry Muffins

2 oz. unsalted butter (1/2 stick)

6 ½ oz. unbleached all purpose flour (or half wholewheat) 1 1/3 cups

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

scant ½ teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3 ½ oz. sugar** (1/2 cup)

1 large egg

4 fl. oz. milk* (1/2 cup)

4 fl. oz. plain yogurt* (1/2 cup)

1 teaspoon vanilla

6 oz. fresh blueberries (1 cup)

*whole milk recommended but not necessary

**reduce sugar to 2 1/2 oz. (1/3 cup) for more breakfast-friendly muffins

Preheat oven to 400°. Line 8 large or 10 smaller muffin cups with cupcake paper. Or grease and flour muffin cups.

Melt butter, cool to warm.

Sift flour(s), baking soda, baking powder, salt and sugar into a deep mixing bowl.

In a large measuring cup whisk together the egg, milk, yogurt, vanilla and cooled melted butter.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and stir in the egg mixture in a few quick strokes. Mix in the dry blueberries with the last traces of flour.

Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, sprinkle the tops with pinches of sugar for a glaze and pop into the preheated oven. Immediately reduce the heat to 375° and bake for 20-25 minutes depending on size or until muffins are golden and test done. Remove from oven and cool on wire rack. Makes 8-10 muffin.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon



Everyday Raita

July 14, 2016
 cucumber raita

cucumber raita

Each spring I spade my garden plot, sink in promising tomato plants and wish for baskets of ripe red fruit. I’m ready to cook through fantasies of the Italian table. Along the way I tuck a few cucumber seeds into the ground near the obligatory summer squash. One year there’s a blight, then a drought, then critters, and I’m usually left in August with scarcely enough tomatoes to garnish a few salads. Meanwhile the cucumbers thrive. We have green gazpacho, salads, quick pickles, wilted cucumbers and cucumbers to give away. Cucumbers grow profusely, and the one tiny plant near my garden fence has now crested its 8-foot stake with fresh vines tumbling over the patio. An abundance of the vegetable allows me to pick them young and fresh each day. I still long for tomatoes, but we’ll enjoy the cukes .

Early in my foray into spicy foods, I learned the balance of tangy yogurt. Yogurt with its naturally fermented sour is the perfect foil to anything peppery or bland. Its tartness lifts and deepens flavor with a dimension often lacking in the standard American diet. We haven’t learned to value the sour, while we add sugar to everything. The glory of yogurt is almost destroyed by sweetening it with jam and fruit until most people think of it as dessert. The tradition of yogurt like buttermilk, sour cream, labneh, etc, was not to be sweet but to refresh. Think of the lift a squeeze of lime brings to a taco or a drop of lemon to a cup of tea.

I learned to make raita (rye ta) from Indian friends who called yogurt “curd.When I first tasted it alongside a dish of chana masala, I though I’d found a perfect match. It’s so good with almost everything that a simple raita makes its way to our table alongside grilled chicken or fish, roasted vegetables, baked potatoes, vegetarian bean stews and sometimes just to jazz up a plate of leftovers.

I usually prepare the simple cucumber raita in a small mortar and pestle. First I crush a clove of garlic and a couple slices of green chili with a pinch of coarse salt. I mix in some finely chopped green or red onion, cucumber cut in tiny dice, some shredded mint, cilantro or parsley then stir in enough homemade whole milk yogurt to make a nice sauce. I test it for salt, sprinkle over a little ground cumin and there it is. It’s ready right away or easily waits for a few hours. Many other vegetables such as grated carrots or radishes, chopped cooked spinach or potato may be used in place of cucumber, but the garlic, onion and optional chili remain consistent.

Last night I thought of simplifying this preparation for someone who doesn’t have a mortar, who doesn’t like to chop into fine dice but needs a sauce in a hurry. The following recipe encourages you to use a microplane and a grater to create the same lovely mixture in fewer minutes. Cucumber Raita is a hot weather remedy for any slump in your summer cooking. It’s health giving, satisfying and tempers the appetite.

Cucumber Raita

1 clove garlic

2-3 slices Serrano chili with seeds (optional)


half a young seedless cucumber (or regular cucumber, seeds removed)

1-3 green onions chopped, or 1 tablespoon chopped red onion

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley, mint, cilantro

½-¾ cup plain whole milk yogurt, preferably homemade   (

ground cumin or freshly ground pepper

Peel garlic, hold by root end and grate on microplane into small bowl. Grate in a small amount of green chili (or chop the chili). Add pinch of salt and dissolve salt in grated garlic and chili. Using the large holes of a box grater or the julienne blade of a Japanese mandoline grate in the cucumber. Stir in the chopped onion. (At this point you should have almost a cup of vegetables). Gently stir in whole milk yogurt. Taste for salt. Scrape into a serving bowl and sprinkle with cumin. Serves 2-4.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon



Fragrant Rice

June 11, 2016
Fragrant Rice

Fragrant Rice

It seems natural to strike up a conversation with taxi drivers when I trip from home to the airport or from the train station to my daughter’s place in the city. In Chicagoland most taxi drivers are from Nigeria, Mexico, India/Pakistan and sometimes from Mongolia, Assyria, or Ukraine. They are always interesting with vivid backgrounds and opinions. We’ve talked politics, religion, but the best common ground is talk about food. Everyone likes to recall his culinary heritage, and showing an interest in different foods brings a feeling of goodwill.

I remember asking a young Nigerian driver if he had any news about the kidnapped schoolgirls. This subject led us his telling me about his early years, and he followed with a most profound statement: “I’m Christian because I grew up in a Christian home, but my wife is Muslim because she grew up in a Muslim home.” Our foundational years shape our future lives. . . As equally profound did we grow up in a rice eating culture or one based on wheat? Outside of our current food fads, the world is divided along lines of rice vs wheat; butter vs olive oil; spices vs bland. I’ve dipped into many mini travels in my taxi rides as I’ve heard about the place of horse meat in Mongolia, buckwheat in Ukraine, fufu in Nigeria or biryani in Pakistan.

Everywhere there’s the magic seduction of rice. The great pilafs and pulaos of Persia, the congees and sushi of Asia, risottos, paellas of Europe and the simple comfort of a rice pudding at home. When I was younger, I only knew rice as Uncle Ben’s, but travel has encouraged me to add numerous rice varieties to my pantry. Basmati is consistently the favorite and each time I dip a cup into the bag of rice I’m led into a routine that takes me on a journey and reminds me of interesting stories I’ve encountered along the way.

I sat beside Mrs. Singh as she swirled rice in cool water, rinsed it and set it to soak. I breathed in the fragrance of steamed rice, cooling to fluff. I waited patiently to pull a tuft of sticky rice into a ball to dip into a spicy goat stew. Even now rice cooking always follows a pattern. One of our most ancient grains, rice, like wheat, grew wild for millennia before it was first cultivated in Asia. Still with us today, let’s not forget how good it is.

I’ve developed the following recipe over years. It uses a traditional Indian rice ritual and can be multiplied for large groups or used for a small family dinner. It holds well, reheats easily and is even good at room temperature as part of a salad. It’s just a bit more than plain steamed rice and so delicious, it’s tempting to eat a bowlful.

Fragrant Rice

1 cup (7 oz.) Basmati rice

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil

1 shard cinnamon stick

pinch coriander seeds (optional)

½ bay leaf (optional)

1 cup (4 oz.) chopped onion

½ tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger (optional)

1/8 teaspoon turmeric

1/8 teaspoon garam masala (optional)

generous ¼ teaspoon salt

1 1/3 cups soaking water

Place rice in a deep bowl; cover with cool water and swirl gently with fingertips until water grows cloudy. Pour off water and repeat rinsing process twice more. Cover rinsed rice with cool water and soak while preparing base.

Melt butter and oil in a heavy pot with tight fitting lid. Add cinnamon stick, coriander and bay leaf, along with chopped onion. Sauté gently until onion is translucent. Add turmeric, garam masala and salt. Drain rice reserving 1 1/3 cups soaking water. Shake soaked rice in strainer to remove excess water; tip rice into sautéed base. Stir to combine with seasonings. Add measured water, stir again making sure all grains of rice are covered with water. Cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer 10 minutes. Turn off heat (remove from burner if electric) and steam at least 10 minutes. Fluff with fork before serving. Place towel over top of pot and replace lid to hold.

Serve with grilled meat, fish or vegetables, nicely sauced chicken or just by itself with a green salad. Enough for 4-6.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon




Creamed Asparagus on Toast

May 27, 2016
Creamed Asparagus on Toast

Creamed Asparagus on Toast

June Freels farmed acres of asparagus at the edge of Butler County where Ohio bumps into Indiana. Just minutes into the rolling countryside west of Oxford, I turned into her long dirt drive and pulled up to the farmhouse. June bounded out the back door and headed for the barn where an old fridge held the day’s picking. “Just had creamed asparagus on toast for lunch,” she chirped as she doled out my ten-pound order. I handed her a twenty, patted the doggie admired the blooming lilac and drove back to town. . .

Creamed asparagus, or asparagus served in a light white sauce was once the most common way to serve the spring bounty. Back then no one roasted, grilled or shaved raw asparagus into salad. It was invariably well cooked and sauced, served on country tables where the green spears were often foraged in spring from fencerows, ditch banks and along train tracks. Restaurants opted for fancier Hollandaise sauce, but our old béchamel (first of the mother sauces) held forth for everyday fare. A little butter, a little flour plus warm milk whisked up in minutes makes a light gravy to bind tender, sweet asparagus. A sprinkle of fresh dill if it’s in the garden, a twist of pepper and a slice of crisp buttered toast make this a comforting vegetarian lunch. Add a welcome boiled egg to lift the humble dish.

The asparagus time of year is here again with abundant bundles on offer in all our Midwestern farmers’ markets. Here near Chicago we often see the purple variety which has become my first choice for flavor. I always opt for the thick stalks which grow from mature roots; they’re the sweetest and most tender. Every now and then it’s fun to fold some fresh asparagus into a white sauce, spoon it over a slice of crusty sour dough toast, and tip a fork into a taste memory worth bringing back.

Creamed Asparagus on Toast

2 tablespoons butter

3 tablespoons flour

1 ½ cups milk (warmed in microwave or saucepan)

salt, freshly grated nutmeg and freshly ground pepper

fresh dill or parsley, lemon juice (optional)

1 pound fresh asparagus

2 soft-center hard-boiled eggs

4 slices toast (peasant or sourdough bread if possible)

Melt butter in heavy saucepan. Whisk in flour and stir for a minute to cook the flour. Whisk in hot milk and simmer to form a smooth sauce. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Taste to correct seasoning; add a few drops fresh lemon juice if desired. Set aside.

Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Trim any tough ends from the asparagus and diagonally cut into half-inch slices (you should have 4 cups). Salt the boiling water generously and blanch the asparagus for 3-4 minutes or until tender. Make sure to cook it a bit longer than the ‘crisp-tender’ stage. Reserve half a cup of the cooking water and drain the asparagus.

Warm the white sauce and thin it if necessary with some of the cooking water. Add the drained asparagus and heat it through. Fold in a tablespoon of chopped fresh dill or parsley.

Spoon the creamed asparagus over warm, buttered toast and garnish each serving with quarters of boiled egg. Sprinkle with flaky salt, cracked pepper and fresh mint, parsley or chives. Serves 4.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon








Coconut Cake

May 11, 2016
Wedding Cake 1940

Wedding Cake 1940

In a ragged string-bound photo album, there’s a small picture of my Mom and Dad’s wedding cake. It was only two nine-inch layers robed in a marshmallow cloud of icing and veiled with freshly grated coconut. In the center of my grandmother’s lace tablecloth, this special little cake marked the family celebration in January 1940.

For as long as I can remember, a coconut cake was our family favorite. For birthdays, anniversaries or even Christmas, coconut cake was a star. Then it seemed to fade away. Everyone started using cake mixes and faking the cake with tinned icing and packaged coconut. It just wasn’t the same. I even recently bought a slice of a coconut cake elegantly displayed in a prestige bakery, and after a bite dumped it in the garbage.

Coconut Cake 2016

Coconut Cake 2016

As the keeper of the few old family recipes I’ve been able to save, I still have the coconut cake written out on a small file card in my grandmother’s hand. Occasionally I take it out, and think about making it for the now. Instead of white shortening, I use butter and in place of juice from a coconut, I use canned coconut milk. Sometimes I substitute whole eggs for the egg whites and I leave the grated coconut out of the batter for easier slicing after it’s baked.

The perfect frosting for this cake is a  swirled cloak of boiled or seven minute icing. If that icing seems too sweet, and the cake can be held in the fridge, it may be frosted with lightly sugared whipped cream and coated with sweetened dry coconut. If the cake needs to stand at room temperature, then go for the traditional boiled icing and if at all possible, use grated fresh unsweetened coconut. Made into tiny cupcakes, this cake makes sweet, light bites and a small slice of a layered cake will take you back in time.

Coconut Cake Slice

Coconut Cake Slicewill take you back in time.

My parent’s marriage lasted for over sixty years. It was a rough road most of the way, but their cake remains the very best.

Coconut Cake

5 oz. unsalted butter (1 stick + 2 tablespoons)

9 oz. granulated sugar (1 ¼ cups)

4 egg whites (graded large eggs) almost 4 fl. oz. (scant ½ cup)

8 oz. cake flour (2 sifted, scooped and leveled cups)

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

6 fl. oz. full fat canned unsweetened coconut milk* (3/4 cup)

1 teaspoon vanilla

* There are many excellent brands of coconut milk from Thailand; I use Chaokoh. Freeze excess for later use.

Preheat oven to 350°. Line two 8 or 9-inch layer cake pans with parchment circles; butter and dust with flour. Tap out any excess. Or line 48 mini cupcake molds.

Cream the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy (use a stand mixer and beat at least 5-6 minutes!) Meanwhile measure flour, baking powder, salt and sift together twice. Once the butter and sugar are softly fluffy, add the egg whites one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Reduce mixer speed and add flour mixture alternately with coconut milk. Scrape down bowl and beat at moderate speed 5-10 seconds. Divide batter evenly between the prepared cake pans and bake in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes (15-20 min for minis). The cake will test done when it is lightly golden and pulling away from the sides of the pans. Allow cake to rest in the pans for 5 minutes then turn out onto a wire cooling rack. Make sure the layers cool parchment side down.

Boiled Icing

2 fl. oz. egg whites (¼ cup)

7 oz. sugar (1 cup)

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/8 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla

Place egg whites in spotlessly clean bowl of stand mixer with whisk attachment.

Combine sugar, cream of tartar, salt and water in small saucepan. Swirl over moderate heat to dissolve sugar. Cover until syrup comes to a boil and steam down any sugar crystals on the sides of the pan. If sugar crystals persist, dip a pastry brush in water and wash down the sides of the pan until clear. Bring the syrup to a strong boil and cook to the firm ball stage or 240°. You can easily test the thickening syrup by putting a few drops on an ice cube; as it cools roll it into a firmish soft ball. As the sugar approaches readiness, turn on the mixer. Whip the egg whites to a soft foam.

When the sugar syrup is ready, hold the saucepan high above the mixer and pour the hot syrup in a thin stream gradually into the egg white foam. Take care to pour the syrup from a height so it hits the egg whites between the whisk and the bowl and doesn’t spin around the beater. This boiling hot syrup will cook the egg whites into a stiff Italian Meringue.

Continue to beat at high speed for a few minutes until the meringue is very stiff and slightly cooled. Add vanilla and beat to combine.

This makes enough icing to fill and frost generously 2 eight or nine-inch layers (or all the minis). Sprinkle generously with freshly grated or packaged sweetened coconut. Serves 12

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon



Magic Vinegar Chicken

April 8, 2016
Vinegar Chicken

Vinegar Chicken

Eons ago I learned to make Vinegar Chicken. When I feel the yen for fried chicken, this is my go-to response. My method is so simple that it could be called “cooking without a recipe.” The dish finds a place in most French cookbooks, and it seems an odd combination. When we stop and think, however, we realize that the acid in the wine vinegar boils away after its tenderizing touch to the protein, and the essence of wine is left to make a lovely glaze. I didn’t think it could work, but it’s magical.

Almost everyone enjoys fried chicken, yet we know we shouldn’t overindulge in fat. Here’s a quick week-night chicken sauté doused with a splash of basic wine vinegar that lifts a simple bird to irresistible flavor. The Vinegar Chicken (sounds much better as Poulet au Vinaigre) combines the golden skin of carefully turned pan-fried poultry plus a rich, amber glaze with minimal fat. Remember that chicken cooked ON the bone has lots more calcium as well as more nutrition and taste all around. The Whole Food concept of eating doesn’t mean boneless, skinless. Likewise many French cookbook recipes call for larger quantities of vinegar, unnecessary in the US where vinegar has a higher acidic content. This smaller dose late in the cooking gives a savory yum—the umami of perfect deliciousness.

Wanting fried chicken without the FRY, then simply sauté and seal in the lip smacking flavor with vinegar.

Vinegar Chicken, Poulet au Vinaigre

3-3½ lb. frying chicken cut up or 2-2½ lbs. bone in, skin on chicken thighs

salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

10-12 cloves garlic (papery skin on)

3-4 tablespoons red or white wine vinegar

½ teaspoon flour

1 teaspoon tomato paste

¾ cup chicken stock or water

1 tablespoon butter (optional)

Dry chicken pieces with paper towel; sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in heavy skillet (cast iron if possible) and sauté chicken over moderate heat until golden. Strew in garlic cloves after chicken has cooked 5 minutes. (Cover pan with spatter screen to contain grease.) Turn the chicken several times as it cooks, making sure it is nicely browned on all sides and done, 20-30 minutes depending on size of pieces.

Measure vinegar into small cup near stovetop. Pour or spoon off excess fat. Reduce heat;  quickly sprinkle over vinegar and immediately cover with lid. Simmer 5 minutes. Remove chicken to a warm platter, stir flour and tomato paste into dripping. Add stock or water and boil up to a rich sauce. Swirl in butter if desired. Pour sauce over chicken. Squeeze softened garlic from paper skins to enjoy along with the chicken. Serves 4.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon






Lemon Meringue Pie

March 16, 2016
lemon meringue pie

lemon meringue pie

When I tasted a skinny slice of Rachel’s lemon meringue pie from the Ballymaloe Cookery School’s demo board last month, I knew I’d found the perfect dessert for Easter dinner. We have such an early Easter this year that there are no local blossoms and scarcely bits of fresh green outside. Pencil daffodils wait in the supermarkets along with boxed California berries, huge, hard, and sour. But we do still have lovely citrus with abundant lemons. Actually what could be better than a puckery tart lemon pie with a billow of marshmallow meringue in the wake of a rosemary-studded roast leg of lamb?

Here’s the lemon pie of your dreams. Too often our American lemon pies with cornstarch-thickened fillings are too sweet, and the meringue goes all sticky or weepy with the slightest wait for dessert. In this Irish version we have a flaky short crust pastry shallow filled with tart thick lemon curd—no cornstarch, minimal sugar. A cloud of thick meringue caps the pie and slowly bakes to crisp ivory dome with a soft interior. One bite of this pie gives you the balance of sweet and tart that is just right, as you wonder why so many lemon meringue pies have missed this beat.

An important part of the preparation is to have both the baked pastry shell and the lemon filling cool before the meringue goes on. The long, slow final baking allows the meringue to crust and to cook through so it holds well. If there’s a slight sugar weep after the first slice, just spoon the bit of syrup out of the pie dish to keep the crust crisp. This is an easy dessert to manage on a busy day. The filling can be made two days in advance, the shell baked the day before. Only the quickly whipped meringue goes on the day of your dinner. The pie needs to cool at least an hour before serving and can easily wait 2-4 hours at room temperature. Happy Easter, Happy Spring.

 Lemon Meringue Pie


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

scant ¼ teaspoon salt

2½ oz. butter (5 tablespoons)

1 egg yolk (save egg white for meringue)

1-2 tablespoons cold water

Place flour and salt in food processor bowl; slice over butter and blitz to a coarse meal. (Or rub butter into flour with fingertips.) Dump contents of processor onto clean counter top. Make well in the center of the mound; add yolk plus 1 tablespoon water. Mix yolk and water with fork and pull in the flour mixture gradually to make firm dough. Add extra spoon of water if needed. Shape dough into a 3-inch patty; wrap in plastic and chill overnight or an hour.

Remove dough from fridge, unwrap and tap with rolling pin to soften. Roll gently to a 12-inch circle; fold in quarters and fit snugly into an 8½-9-inch pie plate. Trim ragged edge and crimp border. Chill shell overnight or at least half an hour.

Preheat oven to 350°. Line chilled shell with sheet of foil, pressing foil gently onto pastry. Half fill foil with baking beans or pie weights and bake blind for 25 minutes. (Google “baking blind” if this is confusing.) When pastry loses the raw look, remove beans with foil. Brush interior of shell with 1 teaspoon whisked egg white and return pastry shell to oven for 5 minutes. Bake until lightly golden. Cool to room temperature. May prepare pastry shell a day ahead.

baked pastry shell

baked pastry shell

Lemon Curd

3½ oz. sugar (½ cup)

Grated yellow zest of 2 lemons

½ cup fresh lemon juice

2 oz. unsalted butter (½ stick)

1 large egg plus 3 egg yolks (save whites for meringue)

Rub lemon zest into sugar. Melt butter in small heavy saucepan (enameled cast iron recommended); add half sugar and lemon juice. Whisk egg and yolks in bowl adding remaining sugar.

Pour half hot lemon juice/butter mixture over the eggs whisking well and pour contents of bowl back into saucepan with hot lemon butter. Stir constantly with wooden spoon over low heat cooking the lemon curd until thick (5-6 minutes). Lemon curd must not boil as it cooks. It will thicken suddenly. Continue to cook a bit longer until it mounds softly in a spoon or reveals the bottom of the pan when wooden spoon is drawn down the middle. Scrape curd into a small bowl or a glass jar, cover with plastic wrap to prevent a skin forming over surface (tip up one edge of the wrap to allow steam to escape). Cool to room temp. and refrigerate.


4 egg whites (reserved from pastry and curd), generous half cup

8 oz. sugar (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons)

Preheat oven to 250°.

Egg whites whip best at room temperature. If whites are cool, pour into mixing bowl, immerse bowl in a larger bowl of hand hot water. Stir whites until tepid.

Place mixing bowl in stand mixer with whisk attachment. Beat whites until frothy and add sugar quickly, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Beat on high speed 6-7 minutes or until meringue holds stiff peaks and all sugar is dissolved. (Rub a little meringue between your fingers to check.)

While meringue whips, spread chilled lemon curd evenly in baked pastry shell. Dollop stiff meringue over lemon curd and use back of a spoon to seal meringue to edges of pie shell. Use spoon to sweep meringue into a decorative topping peaking in the center. Bake meringue topped pie in the center of a 250° oven for 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes. Cool at least an hour before serving. For ease of slicing, gently cut through the meringue first with a serrated knife before using a thin sharp knife. Enough for 8.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon

Seedy Brown Soda Bread

February 24, 2016
Seedy Brown Soda Bread

Seedy Brown Soda Bread

Every time I go to Ireland, all I want to eat is bread and butter. The great tradition of whole grain soft soda bread with sweet, rich butter makes a perfect meal. The world of soda-risen breads is a realm unto itself that thrives only where the conditions are right. The essential ingredient is whole grain soft wheat flour. It’s not cold enough in Ireland to grow the hard wheat famous in northern Europe, the US and Canada. We produce the high protein flour needed for crusty baguettes, fluffy buns and crisp pizzas. Softer wheat flours are perfect for cakes, muffins and biscuits. The Irish take this soft wheat and coarsely mill the whole grain into a flake-filled brown flour unlike anything we can find here. Only this flour makes a proper brown soda loaf. As St. Paddy’s Day approaches, our supermarkets and bakeries will offer raisin-studded sweet round cakes called “soda bread,” but believe me, these are shameful representations of what’s commonly found on Irish tables.

Ireland is still dairy country. In the 19th century the Cork Butter Market was the world’s largest and shipped Irish butter as far as New Zealand. Even today Kerrygold is marketed internationally as a premium European style butter. European butter has a higher fat content than US butter, making it prized for both spreading and cooking.

Whenever I come home, I wish I’d had room to pack a couple of bags of Odlums wholemeal flour, but I know I can find the good Irish butter in most supermarkets. I often try to replicate a soda bread with the supermarket King Arthur flours in my pantry. It’s never quite perfect, but often it’s very good indeed. Here’s a perfect loaf for the yeast-timid baker.

Soda bread begins with a soft dough stirred together by hand or with a rubber spatula, scooped immediately into a prepared bread tin, baked in a hot oven and ready from start to finish within an hour. Only a small amount of sweetening, if any, should be considered. A good measure of seeds or chopped nuts adds crunch and nutrition to an already wholesome loaf. This seedy soda bread makes excellent toast or a base for open sandwiches and keeps well for several days.

Seedy Soda Bread

10 oz. whole wheat flour (2 spooned in/leveled cups)
2½ oz. all purpose flour (½ scooped/leveled cup)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons wheat germ or bran
12-14 fl. oz. buttermilk or thin yogurt*
1 tablespoon dark molasses or 1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon oil or melted butter
2 oz. mixed seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, or chopped nuts (½ cup)

*To make thin yogurt, mix 7 fl. oz. each whole milk plain yogurt and milk. Cover and leave overnight at room temperature to lightly culture the milk.

Preheat oven to 400°. Butter a 8½ by 4½ by 3 inch loaf tin. In a deep measuring cup stir together 12 fl. oz. (1½ cups) buttermilk or thin yogurt, molasses and oil. Hold remaining buttermilk nearby. Sift the flours, salt and soda into a medium bowl. Stir in the wheat germ and seeds. Make a well in the center of the flour; add the buttermilk mixture all at one go. Stir together quickly with a rubber spatula, adding the additional buttermilk if needed to make a soft, wet, muffin-like batter. Scoop the dough into the prepared pan. Dip your hand in water and use it to evenly pat the surface. Cut through the center of the dough lengthwise with a damp knife; sprinkle the top with a few more seeds. Bake in the center of the preheated oven for 35 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the loaf in for an additional 10 minutes to deepen the brown crust. Cool before slicing.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon

Church Brunch

January 25, 2016
Strata baking

Strata baking

At an annual church business meeting one way to get an extra hour from parishioners is to bribe them with a free lunch. Given the noonish time of day, we do brunch. We try for a one-size-suits-all sort of dish that isn’t too costly, can be made ahead and will be easy to serve. This year we opted for the old standby Strata updated into a savory bread pudding.

Here we have bread, sausages, cheese, vegetables well seasoned, layered in buttered Pyrex bakers and moistened with creamyegg-and-milk custard. Wrapped and stowed in the big fridge, Strata for 70 waits for its morning call. With a couple of people minding ovens during the service, the baking Strata fills the church with a inviting aroma. Accompanied by mini-muffins, fresh fruit and salad greens, the Strata will be a tasty reward.

Strata plated

Strata plated

Popularized by the Silver Palate cookbooks in the 1970s, Strata gets its name from ingredients layered into a baking dish. No doubt the idea grew from older American recipes such as “Luncheon Cheese Dish” or “Cheese Sandwich Casserole” of the 50s that I remember served to a party of fourth grade girls.

As always the success of a casserole depends on the quality of its contents. The number- one player here is bread. Be sure to use a sugar-free French loaf or an artisan sourdough. Avoid processed cheeses. I recommend a mixture of Swiss and white Cheddar, but any mixture of good grating and melting cheeses will be fine. Sausages, from bland to spicy, may be combined with diced smoked ham or turkey. For a vegetarian version, omit the meat products and add extra vegetables. Mushrooms, spinach (frozen is OK here), onions, roasted red peppers, chopped sun dried tomatoes, even cooked kale will be welcome in a Strata. One solution to the morning cooking scramble: layer in the Strata a day beforehand and produce a dazzling dish from a clean kitchen the next a.m.

Brunch Strata

12 oz. good French, Italian or sourdough bread

1 jumbo onion (12 oz.) peeled and cut in small dice

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon butter

1 10 oz. box frozen, chopped spinach, defrosted, drained

8 oz. fresh mushrooms sliced and sautéed in butter

12-16 oz. sausage, cooked and diced or crumbled

Good handful fresh parsley, chopped

Fresh or dried thyme

12 oz. (3 cups) grated cheese (Swiss and white cheddar recommended)

6 eggs

2 cups (16 fl. oz.) whole milk

1 cup (8 fl. oz.) heavy cream

Salt, pepper, freshly grated nutmeg, pinch cayenne

Cut the bread into large dice. Include crusts unless scorched. Measures about 9 cups.

Melt butter in small heavy, sauté pan and sweat onion over low heat. Add chopped garlic to the top of the onion and cover with butter wrappers or a parchment circle. The onion and garlic should not brown but will lightly color, melt into softness and reduce by half. Allow 20-30 minutes to cook the onion.

Combine the cooked onion, garlic, drained and squeezed spinach, sautéed mushrooms, cooked sausage, parsley and thyme. Season the mixture with salt and pepper. The vegetable/sausage mixture should weigh around 2 ½ lbs.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl; add cream, milk and season well with salt, pepper, freshly grated nutmeg and a pinch of cayenne.

Generously butter a 3 1/2-quart shallow casserole or baking dish.

Add diced bread to the egg and milk mixture. Lift half of the moistened bread with a slotted spoon and spread it over the bottom of the baking dish. Distribute 2/3 of the vegetable mix over the bread and top with 2/3 of the grated cheese. Add the second half of the moistened bread over the vegetables and sausage. Pat everything firmly in place with your clean hands. Pour the remaining milk and egg mixture evenly over the casserole and sprinkle over the remaining cheese. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Remove from fridge an hour before cooking if possible. Bake Strata in a 375° oven for 45-60 minutes or until puffed and golden. Allow to rest at room temperature 15 minutes before cutting. Serves 8-10.

To increase the Strata recipe for 15-18, using a 5 L baking dish, extend the basic recipe by 1/3. For example: 12 oz. bread should become 16 oz. bread, etc.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon


Christmas Spritz

December 3, 2015
Spritz on baking sheet

Spritz on baking sheet

There’s still time to open your home bakeshop. These early weeks of December mark the best time for Christmas butter cookies. Always better after a week or two in the tin and stored in a cool place, the flavors meld magically.

Every culture seems to have a favorite cookie for the winter holiday season, and most are rich with butter, nuts, or chocolate. Cookie dough is usually a simple mix and offers a family project, if the kids don’t eat too much raw dough and end up with tummy aches. It’s great to share homemade cookies with guests or to savor with afternoon coffee. Here’s one of those perfect little cakes: crisp, fragrant, not too sweet—a good keeper.

Spritz baked

Spritz baked

Spritz is a traditional Scandinavian favorite. Its name comes from its being squirted out. Often made with a cookie press, these butter biscuits appear in various designs. After years of struggling with cookie presses, I say ditch the press and go back to the professional baker’s choice: the pastry bag. With the pastry bag, you have more control, speed, and far less clean up. Nowadays large plastic piping bags are a godsend. The older cloth bags pulled butter from the dough, but the plastic bag keeps the dough moist, is easy to rinse in hot water, and dries quickly. Choose a basic large metal fluted or star tip and take care when you begin not to overfill the bag. A single tip may not give you a variety of shapes, but when this Spritz is among many on your cookie trays, its classic shape is perfect. Everyone will want some.


8 oz. unsalted butter (2 sticks) at room temperature

¼ teaspoon salt

3½ oz. granulated sugar (½ cup)

1 large egg

2 tablespoons milk

½ teaspoon vanilla

¼ teaspoon almond extract

8 oz. all purpose flour (1¾ cups)

1 oz. cornstarch (¼ cup)

Weigh ingredients on an accurate kitchen scale for the best results.

Before mixing cookie dough have four sheet pans ready. Pans do not have to be lined or greased since pressed cookie dough sticks best to a clean, dry baking sheet.

Cream the butter with salt and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer. These cookies may also be mixed by hand with a strong arm and a heavy bowl. When the butter is soft and fluffy, add egg, milk, and flavorings. Beat well. Remove bowl from mixer and sift over flour and cornstarch. Blend flour mixture in your hand using a rubber spatula. The dough should now be soft enough to pipe. If it seems too stiff, add another tablespoon of milk. Put one third of the dough into the plastic bag with a fluted tip, squeeze it all toward the tip, twist the bag above the dough (see photo), and aim the tip straight down on the baking sheet. Twist the bag slightly until a cookie oozes out. Lift the bag straight up and proceed. Pipe approximately 25 cookies onto a sheet. Sprinkle each cookie with a pinch of granulated sugar.

The cookies may be baked immediately, but for a better texture allow the pressed shapes to stand on the sheets an hour or two in a cool place before baking. (This step relaxes the flour, allows absorption of liquid, and makes a tender cookie.) Bake cookies in a preheated 350° oven for 10-12 minutes or until lightly golden. Cool cookies thoroughly before storing in a wax paper–lined airtight tin or plastic box. Store at least a week in a cool place before serving. Makes about 100, or 6-8 dozen, depending on size.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon