Posts Tagged ‘family meals’

Bread Pudding for Mardi Gras

February 17, 2015
Blueberry Bread Pudding

Blueberry Bread Pudding

Two thousand years ago Romans loved to party. The rulering powers believed the public needed to let off steam. Carnivals and Dionysian feast days marked the calendar. In the fourth century when Constantine announced Christianity as the new religion, a peaceful transition meant holidays needed to stay. Most of the now Western church-related holidays such as Christmas, Mardi Gras, and Easter replaced standing feast days in name only.

Mardi Gras, or Carnival, has ancient roots. When early French explorers settled the region known as Louisiana, they brought their homeland traditions. Not Puritans like those settling New England, these raucous New Orleans Roman Catholic immigrants paraded and feasted before the penitential season of Lent. Feast days of Carnival said goodbye (vale) to meat (carne). On the last day before Ash Wednesday, it was time to use up the kitchen’s fat before a sparse and somber Lenten diet. Thus we have Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.

In the frugal kitchen of the French housewife, no scraps were wasted. Bits of meat and vegetables went into stocks and soups, and stale bread was saved for French toast, which morphed into the now famous New Orleans Bread Pudding. Who can resist this warm, fragrant dessert that blends the best of a cake, a custard, a soufflé. With some good bread, a few eggs, a little sugar, milk and cream, you can feast like the King of Mardi Gras and find the buried treasure of blueberries in your own bread pudding.

Bread Pudding

12 oz. loaf good French bread, sliced and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (9 cups)

4 eggs

6 oz. (3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon) sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon dark rum or bourbon

knife-point ground cinnamon

8 fl. oz. (1 cup) heavy cream

16 fl. oz. (2 cups) whole milk

2 cups fresh or frozen blueberries (or other fruit of choice)

cinnamon sugar for sprinkling

In deep bowl whisk eggs with sugar, vanilla, rum, and cinnamon. Blend in cream and milk. Add bread cubes and fold in until thoroughly moistened. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate two hours or overnight to allow bread to absorb all custard.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Divide half of the pudding among 10-14 individual buttered custard cups or spread in a 8-by-10-inch buttered Pyrex dish. Scatter the berries evenly over the pudding and top with the remaining half of the custard-soaked bread. Dust tops with cinnamon-sugar. Bake in water bath (place the filled cups in a deep baking pan and add at least 1/2 inch boiling water). Set water bath in oven and bake for 20-25 minutes or until individual puds are puffed and golden. (Bake approximately 40-45 minutes for a larger pudding dish or until puffed and lightly browned.)

Serve bread pudding warm or at room temperature with crème anglaise, whipped cream or ice cream if desired. Individual servings of leftover pudding may be quickly flashed in a microwave for a quick warm up.

Mary Jo's Cookbook available on Amazon

Mary Jo’s Cookbook available on Amazon





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



Corn Pesto

August 7, 2012

In a prairie-style house near a park with a pool our friends planted a garden along a fence and set a sand box by the patio. Rose of Sharon climbed a shady maple by the garage. Inside, a new open kitchen revved with Wolf, Kohler and Cuisinart. Mission oak chairs surrounded an antique cherry table laid with art deco banded plates atop silver chargers. Our friends’ summer supper redolent of a Tuscan journey featured Midwestern golden corn. As I rolled fettuccine laced with kernels on my fork, I recalled the harvest rite of cutting corn.

Fresh from the garden, burlap bags of roasting ears waited by the back steps. First we shucked, then we blanched, then we cut, as we sat around a big tub under the kitchen light.

To cut corn the old way, hold one end of a cob and rest the other end on a sheet pan or board.  Use a very sharp knife to slice off the top section of kernels leaving a quarter-inch of inner corn on the cob; continue all the way around the cob. Then firmly scrape the cob with the kinfe, extracting the creamy centers, leaving behind the coarse nibs and tough hulls.

Before the season slips away, apply this old Amish corn cutting to the popular corn pesto recipe with whole grain fettuccini, roasted walnuts and a special thanks to those who pointed the way.

Corn Pesto with Fettuccine

4 large or 6 medium ears fresh sweet corn, shucked

2 small zucchini

4 oz. diced bacon or pancetta (1 cup)

2-3 cloves garlic finely chopped

generous pinch crushed red pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

4 handfuls fresh basil leaves (half shredded, half left whole)

8 oz. fresh whole grain fettuccine* or 5 oz. dry whole wheat pasta

roasted walnuts

cherry tomatoes for garnish

Gather all ingredients; dice bacon, grate cheese, chop garlic, etc.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Blanch corn 2 minutes; remove. Blanch whole zucchini 2 minutes; remove. Keep the pot of water ready.

Cut corn as described above: use a sharp, small knife to cut through the top half of the kernels. Scrape the cob, thoroughly extracting all the sweet corn “cream.” Separate the creamed corn and the top kernels. Set aside 1 ½ cups corn kernels and combine remainder with corn cream. Thinly slice zucchini.

In a 3-quart cast iron or shallow stainless pot, sauté bacon until fat is rendered and bacon is golden, crisp, but not hard. Remove bacon to a side plate or drain on paper towel. Leave 1 tablespoon bacon dripping in the pot and sauté garlic until fragrant. Add red pepper, corn cream mixture, olive oil and half the Parmesan cheese. Simmer briefly.

Meanwhile bring the pot of water back to the boil and cook the fettuccine 2-3 minutes for fresh pasta or follow package directions for dry pasta. When pasta is almost done, add a ladle or two of pasta water to hot corn cream mixture and whiz it to a smooth sauce, using a hand-held immersion blender. Add reserved corn kernels.

Seconds before the pasta is done, add the whole basil leaves and the sliced zucchini (to heat zucchini and wilt basil). Pour pasta into a colander to drain, reserving a cup of hot pasta water if needed to thin sauce.

Combine hot pasta with warm corn sauce, thining with pasta water to keep sauce loose and creamy. Divide among four shallow bowls. Top each serving with grated Parmesan, bacon, broken roasted walnut pieces, and shredded basil. Garnish with halved or quartered cherry tomatoes.

*To make 12 oz. homemade whole wheat fresh pasta, use 4 oz. whole wheat flour, 4 oz. semolina flour, 2 eggs, pinch salt and a little water to make a stiff dough.

Mary Jo’s cookbook is available at

Cheese ‘n’ Biscuits

June 7, 2012

My dad had callused hands, cracked heels and a temper that could split stone. He rose early, knew the hours without looking at the clock and clung to the land. He defined himself by his work whether it was selling cars, picking raspberries or pruning peach trees, and travel made him eager to get home. His voice rose with “ Holy, Holy, Holy” at First Presbyterian, and I didn’t know whether to relax or tremble in his presence. When he cooked breakfast for everyone, he opened a hidden door to a generous side, and his blue eyes twinkled.

His specialty was a homespun version of Welsh rarebit served on hot homemade biscuits with fruit, jam or bacon. Most people don’t think of the “cheese on toast” idea as something for breakfast, but it is indeed delicious and serves as a simple supper equally well. While his tender drop biscuits were in the oven, Dad melted a hefty amount of grated cheddar in milk and stirred in a couple of beaten eggs just before serving.

I’m refining the process here by thickening the milk first with a little cornstarch to guard the melting cheddar against curdling, which really isn’t a problem outside of appearance. If I don’t have biscuits on hand, some good whole grain toast will suffice. Rather than breakfast, I’d choose this cheese dish for supper or a starter with a dab of chutney or salsa. Now that I live far from the apricot tree out the back door, a side green salad will complete the plate.

Father’s Day beckons us to remember; I’m thankful my dad cooked.

Joe’s Cheddar Rarebit

1/3 cup whole milk

1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 oz. grated sharp cheddar (3/4 cup)

salt, pepper, cayenne, dry mustard (optional)

1 farm fresh egg, well beaten

Bring milk to simmer in a small saucepan. Season with pinch salt, pepper and optional dash of cayenne and/or mustard powder. Liquify cornstarch with a teaspoon of cold water and stir into scalded milk. Simmer stirring until milk thickens to the consistency of heavy cream. Add grated cheese and stir with wooden spoon until cheese melts.

At this point the milk and cheese will look thin. Blend three spoonfuls of the hot cheese into the beaten egg; pour the tempered egg back into the cheese in the saucepan and continue to stir with wooden spoon in a figure-eight pattern. Cook, stirring gently over low heat until the spoon leaves a dry path on the bottom of the pan and the cheese has thickened to a soft, dolloping sauce.

Spoon cheese onto split, hot biscuits or over crisp, buttered toast. Serve with a dab of spicy tomato chutney or salsa and a green salad. Makes a light first course for 3-4 or supper for 1.

Quick French Chix

March 26, 2012

Winds may blow us off course, but eventually set us back down where we began. I’ve boned whole chickens, stuffed them with exotic rice and preserved lemons, bathed them in sauces of mushrooms, pistachios, fresh herbs and creme fraiche, but sometimes I’m ready for some simple fried chicken. I’m not interested in the boneless, battered, deep-fried model but just an honest piece of flavorful, free-range chicken seared until the skin is crispy, the meat juicy and bathed with a simple reduction of greaseless pan glazing.

Long ago I learned all it takes in addition to my heirloom cast-iron skillet, a swirl of oil, and a few cloves of garlic is a splash of common red wine vinegar. I’ve repeated this chicken sauté countless times over the decades with slight variations along the way, and it’s always a favorite. Diners will never guess the secret ingredient is vinegar that sweetens, tenderizes and moistens the chicken.

Country cooks have long known the benefits of using vinegar, one of the oldest kitchen staples. All you need are five ingredients, along with salt and pepper and half an hour to recreate the version of fried chicken that made Paul Bocuse a celebrity chef forty years ago. Even if you hesitate at the vinegar idea, you’ll want to give this healthy, tasty alternative a chance. It’s not necessary to use fancy balsamic, sherry or champagne vinegars here; simple salad vinegar, red wine or cider, is fine. For any pan-fried chicken, choose bone-in pieces that boost calcium, hold in moisture—and as most chicken aficionados know, the choice pieces are dark.

French Style Sautéed Vinegar Chicken

4 leg/thigh pieces of free-range chicken (about 2 1/2 lbs.), or one 3-lb. chicken cut in pieces.

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil

6-8 large whole cloves garlic

4 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon flour

1 teaspoon tomato paste, Dijon mustard or 1 chopped fresh


3/4 cup (6 fl. oz.) chicken stock

Cut through the underside fat line between the knee and thigh joint to make two pieces or just sever the tendon so the joint will lie flat as it cooks. Blot chicken dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Swirl oil in a heavy iron skillet and heat until oil shimmers. Find a lid or a baking sheet that will cover the skillet tightly, and set aside. Using tongs, add chicken pieces, skin side down. Distribute whole, unpeeled garlic cloves among chicken pieces. Sauté over moderately high heat for ten minutes. Turn chicken, which should be deeply golden, and cook for ten minutes on the other side. At this point the chicken should be almost cooked through.

Remove chicken and garlic to a plate, and pour fat from pan (there may be as much as 4-5 tablespoons excess fat). Return chicken and garlic to skillet; bring heat back up. Measure 4 tablespoons vinegar. Once the chicken is again sizzling, pour the vinegar over the chicken and immediately cover with lid and steam the chicken for 5 minutes.  Remove the lid; again remove chicken and garlic from the skillet which will be filmed with a sticky residue from the vinegar and chicken juices; this is the precious bit to turn into a glazing sauce.

Work the teaspoon of flour into the little bit of remaining fat, and add tomato paste, mustard or diced whole tomato. Whisk in chicken stock and boil up quickly to form a light sauce. Return the chicken and garlic to the pan, coat with sauce and simmer a few seconds. Serve with sauce glaze, whole soft garlic cloves and a sprinkling of fresh parsley and chives. Serves 4. Any leftovers make excellent room-temperature picnic bits.