Cookies with a Kick

As per usual, I was trying to avoid watching the news, so instead riffled through a cookbook called “Sophisticated Entertaining,” by Jeanne Benedict. The sophisticated angle in this book is that every recipe contains booze! And that includes the chocolate chip cookies, which contain two tablespoons of Scotch whisky. I had to try.

So, I found myself last Monday morning in the murky depths of Sav Way liquors, buying a tiny (50 ml) bottle of J&B Scotch. The bottle is so tiny that I think the size is 50 ml, but even with my glasses, I couldn’t quite read much of the label.

As it turns out, the cookies themselves are excellent: buttery and soft with crisp edges and with just the right amount of chocolate chips. The Scotch itself emerges mildly as a faint smoky flavor–very tasty. As you will see, I kicked the recipe up a notch by concocting a Scotch whisky glaze and dipped the cookies in that. Woo hoo! Here is the recipe.

Scotch Chocolate Chip Cookies

Prairie spurge in a vase

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup white sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tablespoons Scotch
2-1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Beat the butter and sugars together until smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs and Scotch, and beat until incorporated. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together, and beat into the butter mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts.

Drop by heaping tablespoons 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Cool, and dip one side of each cookie in the Scotch glaze. The cookies can still be a bit warm–the glaze will melt and become transparent.

Scotch glaze: Mix the remaining Scotch in the bottle (about 2-1/2 tablespoons) with enough water to make about 5 tablespoons liquid. Stir into two cups of powdered sugar. You want a creamy glaze, and may have to add a few teaspoons more water.

Baking notes: You can also use Bourbon, which is an American whiskey. Also, walnuts are expensive, so I used a small bag of chopped walnut halves and pieces, not a whole cup. The Scotch whisky glaze really makes these cookies look special, and I could see these as part of a holiday cookie spread.

Meanwhile, always back to birds. Sometimes our garden looks like an amusement park for goldfinches and the other day I noticed a young goldfinch using a hosta stem as a trampoline. Young goldfinches, by the way, have a very persistent chirp, and flap their wings to get the attention of mom and dad.

two young goldfinches wing flapping
a young bird flies away
Finally Dad gets to eat in peace.

We have some new additions to our bird family. Hummingbirds!

Lastly, a goldfinch with a sunflower has a bit of competition from an incoming finch. Peace to you. Fran

Bird Kerfuffle

Sometimes our garden looks like the Peaceable Kingdom: birds, bunnies, chipmunks, butterflies, and gnats quietly coexist and all is well. But sometimes, bird kerfuffles erupt. Here is the sequence of events from a few evenings ago, all taking place within ten minutes. The cast of characters at the feeder changed from second to second, and things got pretty wild! All’s well that ends well. A few minutes later, there were no birds to be seen.

Here are some blackberry lilies against blooming phlox, and a picture of our cat Puff. Peace to you. Fran

Museum of Ancient Times

Jim and I were recently invited to attend the wedding of my niece, Anne. It may seem ludicrous, but the first question that popped into my mind was, “Should I wear pantyhose?” Way back when, every woman wore pantyhose with her dress or skirt, or she was not dressed. (Click here for four reasons to wear pantyhose.) I hated to feel like an old lady, but habit won out. I dug around into the very bottom of the top drawer of my dresser, and found a pair, unworn for at least ten years. It felt like an archeological dig. And there were no runs in them, which was a miracle!

It made me think about other items and habits that used to be common and which have receded into the past. For instance, hankies. As a kid, I always had a balled up handkerchief in my pocket, and it was every bit as unsanitary as you can imagine. I still have a little pile of hankies in the top drawer of my dresser, and can’t bring myself to throw them away. There even used to be satin-lined trays for storing hankies.

Also, people used to write letters to one another. Here is a nice letter my sister Janet’s mother-in-law sent me along with some cookie recipes I had asked her for. Very few people nowadays take the time to do this.

This brings us to beautiful handwriting, something that has really fallen by the wayside. I think it matters how something is expressed. (Please see “A Story About the Little Word ‘And'” for more on this.)

Speaking of recipes, many women collected recipes from friends and relatives, and kept them in a little recipe box. This belonged to my mother-in-law, Nancy. Each card was a memento from the past.

No one seems to mail postcards anymore, but it used to be that if you were on a vacation, you conscientiously mailed postcards to all near and dear. Here is a postcard I sent to my sister Janet, from Stonehenge, circa 1974.


Here is an ancient telephone, from sometime in the 1970s, covered with dust and cat hair. We use it as an upstairs phone, and it’s fine.

Sometimes as I look at photos on someone’s smart phone, whizzing past hundreds of images, I can’t help but wonder if old style photos weren’t better. There were fewer of them, and are precious. Below, two photos of my dad, and me with my grandmother.

Hula hoops. All I can say is that in 1959, hula hoops were big. I was so excited.

Somewhere in the 1960s, a hairstyle called a “flip,” was big. You had to wear rollers, and I can remember sleeping on the rollers, to get the flip. I can also remember using empty orange juice concentrate cans as rollers. It seemed like such a good idea. Also, as straighter hair came in, I remember laying my head on on ironing board (object also eligible for Museum of Ancient Times, come to think of it) and ironing my hair. I was careful to use the “low” setting.

And from the cookbook, “McCall’s No Time to Cook: Meals in Minutes,” comes a recipe for a pineapple cheese ball that is a testimony to the times. Sociologists may disagree, but this particular recipe may have been responsible for the women’s movement. Women all over American, as they measured the bottom circumference of the cheese ball (it had to be 15-1/2 inches), threw down their sliced olives, and went marching.

Somewhere in 1962, I got a letter from my cousin Elizabeth, who lives in Grangemouth Scotland, mentioning a fab group called the Beatles, and it seems like, with the strum of a guitar, everything changed, and with Kennedy’s assassination in 1963,  brought us to the world we live in now. Below, a song that reminds me of the old days. Peace to you. Fran


All I can say today is: summer. We’re in the thick of it. The basil is glossy and neon green, and I will be dreaming about it in January. The daylilies are in full song, there are dragonflies, bumblebees . . . I’m a bit drunk with it all.

Yesterday Jim and I went for a drive in the country, and stopped by Heritage Prairie Farm, in Elburn. I have written about it previously, and we couldn’t resist a return visit. Attracted by their melodious bleating, we visited with the goats, who looked like they were living in goat heaven, with plenty of green grass to nibble and a great view from their paddock.

We also stopped in the farm store, and purchased goat cheese and a little box of heirloom cherry tomatoes. We got a tip from the store manager on what to make with these treasures.

Then I noticed a coffee making machine, and asked for one cup of coffee–it would be mostly for Jim, and I would have just a sip, as it was getting late in the day. First, we were asked if we wanted it hot or cold. Rarely do we have that choice, and in the spirit of trying something new, I asked for cold. Jim’s eyebrow went up. Did we want honey in the coffee? Honey? The bees were right over our shoulder in a special hive that you could see from inside the store–I didn’t want to offend–certainly not anger them–so said yes. Jim’s other eyebrow went up. Did we want goats milk or regular? Goat’s milk in our coffee? I said yes, and if Jim had had another eyebrow, it would have gone up. Ambling out of the store with our coffee, Jim said, “You first.” Well, it was incredibly delicious. There was the deep roasted, smoky flavor of the coffee, then the faint hint of the honey sweetness, like music heard from a faraway mountain, and then the goat’s milk, which tasted like the creamiest cream ever. How could I have doubted the goats? Soon, we were fighting over it, down to the last ice cube. This coffee has pretty much spoiled me for just regular coffee, and I hope to have it again soon, though certain pleasures are ephemeral, never to be repeated, and this may be one of them.

We went home, and I made the appetizer recommended by the store manager. I speared cubes of the goat cheese with a leaf of fresh basil and a cherry tomato. If the tomato was large, I halved it. I arranged this all on a plate, and drizzled with balsamic vinegar. I am an uncertain drizzler, but did the best I could. This was so good: the creamy goat cheese literally melted in your mouth, then there was the fresh, sharp green flavor of the basil, and then the sweetness of the tomatoes, spangled with droplets of tart, smoky vinegar. What can I say? Very good–another summer pleasure.

Photos below: fresh basil from my garden, and other ingredients. The goat cheese came from Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, in Champaign, Illinois. I visited their website, and it looks like a wonderful place—you can visit the goats, watch cheese being made, and other delights.

Also in my garden are rafts of Gloriosa daisies. They are close relations of black-eyed Susans, and will self seed year after year. They are not subtle plants, but if you like your plants bold and brassy, here they are. Every spring I look out for their fuzzy leaves, and let them grow. They are easy to start from seed. Also shown, swamp milkweed with a bee.

Can’t resist mentioning our cat Puff.  He is like a big fluffy cloud in cat form!

Meanwhile, continuing drama at the bird feeder. A sparrow is repelled by the house finches, but a young grackle lurks nearby, and pounces.

Peace to you. Fran


Cool Little Plates for Summer

A few weeks ago Jim and I attended a food fest hosted by the St. Charles History Museum. Local restaurants offered tastes of their specialties, music played, the sun shone, and it was a nice time. My favorite dish was a small plate of nibbles from a St. Charles restaurant called Vintage53, a “rustic-industrial wine bar.”

Arranged beautifully on a small rectangular plate was a slice of really delicious salami, a slab of nutty cheese, a little bowl of seasoned almonds and another little bowl of olives seasoned with fresh rosemary. Topped with a toasted round of good bread, we nibbled these tasty bites along with a glass of chilled white wine. Then we tried their roasted red grape crostini with fresh goat cheese and prairie flower honey. Also good!

It occurred to me that I could live on this type of food all summer, and would never need to go near a stove for months (unless, of course, I wanted to make my own almond and olive nibbles–see below). The small plate of goodies was filling and would be perfect for a cool summer supper. (Though it didn’t stop us from trying Dave’s burnt pork ends, pierogi with sour cream, pasta with vodka sauce, several adorable (small) cupcakes, a cannoli, a chocolate truffle . . . and a vanilla ice cream sundae with caramel sauce. Reader, I looked longingly at the tiramisu, but knew it would kill me.)

So here is my own take on making a “small plate” of goodies for our cool summer enjoyment. By the way, Italians have their “little plates,” (piattini), Russians have zakuski, the Spanish have tapas, and Middle Easterners have meze–all little nibbles to enjoy. Lots to learn about!

First, we’ll prepare some almonds. This recipe comes from “Cicchetti and Other Small Italian Plates to Share,” by Wildsmith & Sforsza. I have adapted it slightly. (The almonds from Vintage53 were seasoned with fresh rosemary, but I really like these smoky almonds, as well.)

Spiced Almonds

1 teaspoon olive oil
1-1/3 cup whole almonds
coarse sea salt
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

Heat the olive oil in a a small skillet, then add the almonds and roast over medium-high heat for about five minutes. They will brown a bit and emit a roasted smell. Remove the skillet from the heat, and sprinkle with the smoked paprika and generously with the coarse sea salt. Allow to cool.

Note: I used whole, unblanched almonds from Aldi, and they worked perfectly. Smoked paprika is becoming more and more commonly available as cooks discover how versatile it is. It can be found at World Market stores and at spice shops.

Below, ingredients for seasoned almonds, almonds roasting in pan, and stored in a jar.

Rosemary Olives

This is my take on the marinated olives we had, which included huge, glistening black olives. I had kalamata olives on hand, so I used those. First, drain a 6-ounce jar of pitted kalamata olives. Then heat about two tablespoons of olive oil in a small skillet; add the well-drained olives, three cloves of garlic, about one tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary, and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. Heat the olives in this mixture for about three minutes. Let the olives cool a bit, and then pour them into a storage jar with several shards of fresh lemon peel and two small fronds of fresh rosemary. These can be eaten warm or cool, but the longer the olives sit in the rosemary-infused oil, the better they are.

Note: A grocery store near us has an “olive bar,” with an assortment of seasoned olives. If you don’t want to cook, this could be an option.

Below: ingredients, olives warming in pan, and stored in jar.

Then the fun begins as you assemble your nibbles. Add to the mix: good quality sliced cheeses, salami such as sopressata, marinated fresh mozzarella balls, roasted peppers, and for something sweet, add the most delicious dates you can find (try medjool), dried figs, fresh cherries, sliced peaches . . . and on and on. This just scratches the surface. Check out Piattini: 12 Small Plate Italian Menu Ideas by Vincent Scordo for more ideas.

Then, slice some of the best French or Italian bread you can find–toast or grill it for best flavor. Then, bring out the chilled Prosecco, and feast!

The cheese was a sharp cheddar and went well with the fresh cherries.
Provide little forks, toothpicks and spoons so everyone can grab a bite.

There is always drama in the world of birds, and I caught this kerfuffle with my camera just a few days ago.

All’s well that ends well. Peace to you. Fran




A Taste of Ghana: Cubeb-Spiced Shortbread

The pathway to this recipe was surprisingly short: while browsing through the new cookbooks at our library, “Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen” by Zoe Adjonyoh almost lept out at me and knocked me over. Its colorful cover and promise of “traditional Ghanaian recipes remixed for the modern kitchen,” had me riveted. Zoe has a Ghanaian restaurant in London. Living in the American midwest, I sometimes feel the need to raise my eyes from my hamburger and look farther afield to foods more exotic, so I’ve been enjoying this book.

I immediately riffled my way to the dessert section, and found the following Cubeb Spiced Shortbread recipe. Cubeb pepper? A little research showed that cubeb pepper (Piper cubeba) is also known as “tailed pepper,” and is grown in Java and Sumatra. It’s not commonly used in western cooking, and I had to do some deep digging for an affordable internet source. I found the Ye Olde Spice Guy on Etsy, sent in my order, and soon received a small amount of cubeb pepper in the mail. If it had come via camel, it couldn’t have been more exciting.

Before going any further, let me say that the following recipe is my own adaptation of Zoe’s recipe. Baking recipes that come from Ghana via Brixton, London, is an endeavor full of pitfalls, mainly having to do with the flour. But after working out what 180 grams of flour and 55 grams of caster sugar are in cups, I found that the recipe is a kissing cousin of my own favorite shortbread recipe, and I decided to use that.

Then, I had to make the Ghanaian Five-spice Mix. Depending on your temperament, this is way fun, or it’s torture. First you have to gather the spices, and some may require grinding. Then, careful measuring and blending. Then, inhaling. To me, the intense fragrance of the spices makes it fun: just for a moment, I’m in the Spice Islands! Here is the recipe:

Cubeb-Spiced Shortbread

Map from Wikipedia showing location of Ghana.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 cup flour
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon Ghanaian 5-Spice Mix

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and grease a baking sheet or line with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, beat the butter until smooth, and then add the sugar. Beat until fluffy. (This can be done with a large spoon.) Stir the flour with the salt. Add to the butter mixture, along with the Spice Mix. Mix the dough together with your impeccably clean hands. It will be a bit crumbly.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out to a rectangle 10″ long and 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 11 strips, then cut horizontally in half to create 22 cookies. Bake for about 13 to 15 minutes. While they cool, mix one cup of powdered sugar with 1 teaspoon 5-Spice Mix. Roll the warm cookies in the spiced sugar and allow to cool.

Midwestern/Ghanaian Five-Spice Mix

Mix together one tablespoon ground cubeb pepper, 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg, 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cloves, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon and one teaspoon ground ginger.

The original Spice Mix recipe called for 6 tablespoons ground cubeb pepper. I decided to go with one tablespoon to see if I liked cubeb pepper. (As it turns out, to my tastebuds, cubeb pepper is like a peppery allspice with a note of turpentine, and is good. But I would stick with the one tablespoon quantity.) Also, I decreased the clove amount a bit.

Pictured below: the spices, grating nutmeg, and the cubeb pepper, showing its little tails.

Baking notes: The original recipe called for caster sugar, which is very fine granulated. You can make this by grinding granulated sugar in a blender until fine, or use the indicated powdered sugar. If your weather is very warm (it’s above 80 here in St. Charles), you may want to pop the dough into the refrigerator for 15 minutes before rolling out.

Pictured below: The ingredients, the rolled out dough, the baked cookies, and the cookies rolled in the spiced powdered sugar.

I am a big fan of grackles, and noticed this one high in the trees. He seems pretty much in charge of the world, and I’m okay with that. Peace to you. Fran





It’s the Berries: Lemon Ricotta Souffle

Here’s the thing: if you asked me if I could bake a cherry pie, I’d say yes. But will I bake a cherry pie any day soon? Nope. Times have changed, and I actually find your average pie to be too heavy. The crust, the sugar, my aging digestive tract–my tastes have really changed and I like lighter, fresher tasting desserts.

This is by of introducing this recipe for Lemon-Ricotta Soufflé with Berries. It’s from a cookbook called “Fresh Food Fast” by Peter Berley. The recipes are vegetarian and are arranged seasonally. What I like about his recipes is that Berley loves good food, and happens to be a vegetarian. So everything tastes delicious.

Don’t be afraid of the word “soufflé” here. While it will puff up beautifully, it’s still nice if served deflated or even cooled. The recipe originally was made with blueberries, which was good, but I thought it would be fun to try a combination of blueberries, blackberries and cut-up strawberries. Then, since it’s red currant season, I strewed red currants on top. May as well go berry crazy!

At any rate, this Lemon-Ricotta Soufflé is light, lemony and refreshing, and I hope you enjoy.

Lemon-Ricotta Soufflé with Berries

It’s red currant season!

1/2 cup sugar
6 eggs
grated zest of 1 lemon
15-16 oz. whole milk ricotta cheese
1 pint of blueberries, or a half-cup each
of blueberries, blackberries and
cut-up strawberries

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 9-inch pie plate or baking dish. Set aside one tablespoon of the sugar.

In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs with the remaining sugar and lemon zest. In a small bowl, mix the ricotta so that it softens and smooths out a bit. Add the ricotta to the egg and stir until smooth. (It will be lumpy at first, but persevere.)

Pour the mixture into the prepared pie plate and bake for 15 minutes. Top with blueberries or the berry combination; sprinkle on the reserved one tablespoon sugar and resume bake until browned and set, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm or cool.

Baking notes: This would be great with some wild berries, or raspberries or cut-up nectarines. Go for it!

Photos below show: ingredients, batter and after stirring, batter in pie plate, batter after first baking.

Also, Reader, I have to make a confession. The first time I made this, Jim and I ate the whole thing. It was so good! We’re having lunch now, so I’ll see what happens with the second version.

Bad Boy Goldfinch

Okay, I’m asking you to take a flight of fancy with me, but here is a goldfinch with charisma–kind of a James Dean, Brad Pitt or, even a Sid Vicious goldfinch. He has presence. Don’t mess with him!

Peace to you. Fran