Father's Day Gets Started Early: Butterscotch Brownies Recipe

Father’s Day came a bit early for me this year. Santa Maria is headed out of town next weekend, so she started the celebration on Saturday. We were just back from a high-school graduation party for the daughter of our babysitter, and in less time than it too me to get Nina and Pinta ready for bed, she whipped up a batch of butterscotch brownies.

This dessert is an old favorite of mine. When I was growing up, one of my sisters was an inveterate baker, and I’ll never forget the ones she used to make. I can still see her as she would break open a bag of Nestle Butterscotch morsels, and I think I can still hear the crinkle of the plastic, and smell their sweet aroma.

Sometimes, when we grow up, though, we grow up with a mistaken view of the world. Until I met Santa Maria, I didn’t think you could make butterscotch brownies without a bag of those morsels. She’s shown me I was wrong, and it wasn’t the last time she’s done that. Here’s how to make them from scratch. Keep in mind that the batter can be prepared in the time it takes for the oven to preheat.

Butterscotch Brownies

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt in a saucepan:

            ¼ cup butter

Stir into it until dissolved:

            1 cup brown sugar

Cool these ingredients slightly, then beat in well:

            1 egg

            1 teaspoon vanilla

Sift, then measure:

            ½ cup all-purpose flour

Resift it with:

            1 teaspoon double-acting baking powder

            ¼  teaspoon salt

Stir these ingredients into the butter mixture. Pour the batter into a greased 9 x 9-inch pan. Bake about 20-25 minutes. Cut into bars when cool.


Notes: This recipe is adapted from the “Joy of Cooking.,” which is right on the money when it calls it “An all-time favorite, easily made.” Santa Maria uses organic flour, with germ. She also pressed a few chocolate chips in the top, at one end, and she used a larger pan. 


Pumpkin Custard Recipe Good for a Weeknight or a Dinner Party

As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been on a lucky, dinner-party streak. For a recent gathering of friends at my house, I had the good fortune of being solicited by McCormick Gourmet. They’re doing something called the McCormick's Dinner Party Chain, which involves encouraging people to dine together. Now, that’s just the kind of thing I’m all for. If you want a chance to win your “dream dinner party,” you can click on their Facebook page, for a chance to, er, spice up your life (sorry, but I couldn’t help it). The company was also kind enough to send me a few gift cards, salad spoons, other kitchen implements, along with a massive, rotating spice rack, to get my own dinner party going.

My first course was an action-packed spring salad (I’ll get to that later in the week) and the entrée was my favorite sage-and-apple pork roast with a white-wine sauce. The dessert was the masterful work of Santa Maria, and that’s where the spice rack came in handy.

She’s perfected a spicy pumpkin-custard recipe that has four distinct advantages. First, it’s amazingly delicious, a smooth and scrumptious mix of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. Second, it’s very convenient—she makes it with regular milk, and not the condensed stuff (which may or may not be in the back of one’s cupboard; fresh milk, on the other hand should always be in the fridge). Third, it’s healthy, as desserts go—think of it as a pie without the piecrust. And it can be made with kids (that's Pinta, above, helping her make it).

Of course, the trick when having a dinner party is to smother it with whipped cream. This, of course, may negate that third advantage, but it’ll make everyone happy. 

Crowd-Pleasing Pumpkin Custard Dessert

  • one 15 oz. can pumpkin
  • 2/3 cup 1% milk (or whole or skim)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/2 t nutmeg
  • 1/4 t ginger
  • 1/4 t cloves
  • 1/4 t salt
  • ¼ cup sugar

Combine all the ingredients in a 9-inch pie or tart dish. Or use individual ramekins. This will probably make about twelve, three-inch ramekins.

Bake approximately 30 minutes in oven at 350 degrees.  Let cool 10-15 minutes. Garnish with whipped cream.

Just Desserts: Ricotta and Honey

The picture, above, was inspired by one of the most delicious desserts I’ve ever had. Someday—perhaps on a day when I haven’t risen at 6:00 a.m., run, showered, made lunches, made breakfast, eaten breakfast, taken the kids to school, stood on my commute to work, worked, commuted home, and put the kids to bed—I will elaborate on the trip to Italy when I first tasted fresh ricotta and honey together in one luscious spoonful, but it won’t be right now.

At the moment, I’m trying to get this post done in the time it takes to sweat the onions (in tonight’s case, shallots; always use whatever you have on hand) for my go-to, super-quick, weeknight dinner of D’Artagnan truffle sausages, pasta, and spinach, so I don’t have the time to go into detail.

Trust me, though: one of the sweetest, creamiest, and most delicious combinations in the whole world is ricotta cheese and honey—especially if you have the right cheese and the right honey. More on that, someday, perhaps at which point I'll even make my own ricotta. In the meantime, go with what you have—I put the strawberries on for the photo, and they were delicous, too.

Five-Minute Meal Follow Up: Super Fast Lemon Sugar Cookie Recipe

I might do most of the shopping and cooking around the house, but to set the record straight, that’s simply because I’ve claimed the former activity and I can’t live without the latter. What I mean is that in the ever-vexing division of household labor I have simply staked out for myself the things that are easiest for me. To relax, I need to know I have food in the house—so I shop. To eat well, I need to know how to cook—so I station myself at the stove.

While I do what comes naturally to me, so does Santa Maria. She bakes. And she does it with great skill. Remember that amazing birthday cake? Well, that was no mere one-off. She makes the most delicious lemon-sugar cookies. They’re sweet and tasty, with a bit of a golden crunch on the corner, and an enticingly tart finish on the tongue.

And, just as I have perfected the five-minute meal, she has perfected the weeknight homemade cookie—no small feat for the woman who works and watches the kids. The trick is to make the dough ahead of time, freeze it in a roll, and then slice off a few cookies the night you want to eat them. Pop them in the oven at your convenience, and your dessert will be ready in the time it takes to turn on the TV and pop in a DVD. Trust me, you can do it.

Santa Maria’s Heirloom Lemon Sugar Cookie Recipe


  • 4 cups flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 cup butter (two sticks), softened to room temperature (about 70 degrees)
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1teaspon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon lemon extract 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, mixing the flour, baking soda, and salt together.

Cream the butter in a separate bowl, and then add the sugar until well blended.  Add the eggs and the vanilla and lemon extracts.

Mix the dry ingredients into the butter mixture.  This may require a strong arm!

Divide into 3-4 portions. Roll each portion into a log, or pat into a flat ball. 

Cut the log into 1/3” nickels, place on cookie sheet, then press with your knuckles, sprinkle with sugar and bake for about 10 minutes.  I like them just barely golden at the edges.

This dough freezes extremely well and makes a very nice after school treat for kids, or a late night reward for tired moms and dads. Must be accompanied by very cold milk.

It also makes great cut out cookies – hearts for Valentines Day, reindeer for Christmas, eggs for Easter.  Sprinkle flour on your counter, then use a rolling pin to roll out the dough to about 1/5 or ¼” thickness (thinner than the roll cookies, because they are bigger). For Valentines Day, it’s a very nice idea to substitute a pale pink glaze for the sugar sprinkled on top. 

Vanilla Yummy Cake Recipe


As I promised earlier in this week of posts about baking, here is the recipe for the cake Santa Maria made last week. I swear that it was so good that I can still taste it in my mouth: light, fluffy, sinuously vanilla-y, and delicious beyond belief. I’m tempted to go make it myself right now, it’s that good.

Santa Maria was kind enough to write the recipe up, and here’s how the cake came about, and how to make it.

I found the following recipe in “The Joy of Cooking” and I vowed to make it the week before my big darling’s birthday.  Then the eve of the party rolled around. I was tired and frazzled as usual and thought, “I don’t want to make a complicated 4 bowl cake! Let me find an easier recipe.”

“The Joy of Cooking” accommodated and, a few pages later, I duly found a "Quick or Lightening Cake" recipe.  But then I read its description: “We all want a good cake in a big hurry.  But let’s not delude ourselves that shortcuts make for the best textures or flavors.”

Bad mama smackdown! "I’ll make the !@#$!@% four bowl cake," I thought.

And I did.

Vanilla Yummy Cake, adapted from "The Joy of Cooking"

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease two round 9” cake pans with butter.

Have ingredients at room temperature (about 70 degrees). I like to use organic ingredients whenever possible.

Sift (then measure) – yes, it’s a pain, but the cake is a lovely combination of rich and light:

2 ¼ cups all purpose flour

2 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt


In a separate bowl, cream until fluffy:

1 ¼ cups sugar

½ cup butter


In yet another bowl, combine:

1 cup milk (I used 1 %)

1 teaspoon vanilla


Add the sifted dry ingredients to the butter in 3 parts, alternating with the liquid combination.  Stir the batter until smooth after each addition.


Whip until stiff (but not dry – whatever that means) – I just did it until the whites stand in firm peaks:

 4 egg whites

Fold them lightly into the batter and bake about 25 minutes.

When cool, ice with the following:


Santa Maria's own Buttercream Frosting

  • 6 T butter (very soft, at room temperature)
  • 1 entire package confectioners sugar

Mix these together then add 1 teaspoon vanilla and about 1/3 cup milk until you have a lovely creamy bowl of frosting. 

Nina wanted a black and white cookie cake, so I frosted half the cake with the above mixture, then added 1 ounce of melted and cooled 70% dark chocolate to the remaining half of the frosting.  It was a very delectable cake!

Super Simple Banana "Ice Cream"

When you cook as much as I do (and as often), you end up doing odd things, at odd times. It may be winter, but last weekend I made banana “ice cream.” I put it in quotes because it’s not really ice cream. Though it looks and tastes that way, it’s nothing but frozen bananas. Nothing else.

This recipe has been circulating on the Internet for a while now, and I apologize if you’ve seen it before. I first came across it last summer while on vacation in Montauk. We had some extra, quickly ripening bananas, and I thought I could use them up. Unfortunately, at that time, I did not read the recipe before throwing the whole bananas in the freezer. You don’t want to do that. You want to cut them into little slices, first.

Last weekend, I had two compelling reasons to make the banana “ice cream.” I had three nearly overripe bananas staring at me from the corner of the kitchen, and I had my brother, sister-in-law, and their son coming over for a morning visit. My nephew can’t eat wheat or dairy. I had made pancakes, but he wouldn’t be able to have any. I wanted to have a treat for him.

So this time, I read the recipe, and followed the very simple but important instructions. I sliced the bananas, put them on a plate, and stuck them in the freezer before my nephew and his parents arrived. When he got here, I was ready to try out the recipe.

I couldn’t believe that plain, frozen bananas could transform themselves into creamy soft “ice cream,” but that’s exactly what happened. I can’t say I really liked the results, but I know I’m in the minority. My nephew tried a taste, broke out into a huge smile, and said “Like it.” And as soon as his bowl was empty, he pointed at the blender and said, “more dat.”

One-Ingredient Banana “Ice Cream”

  • 3 or more ripe bananas 
  • 1 blender

Peel the bananas.

Cut them into small pieces, and spread them out on a plate.

Put the plate in the freezer for one to two hours.

Drop the frozen banana slices into a blender, and run it until the bananas magically transform into what looks like soft ice cream. It will happen, eventually. Just push the bananas down the side of the blender as you go.


Chocolate Pudding for the Holidays and Any Day

I’m just back from visiting Santa Maria’s folks for the New Year. We ate well at their house, mostly because I did the cooking and the shopping. There’s little better, from my point of view, than going to the grocery store when on vacation. Ordinarily, going to the grocery store, especially in New York City, is a harried rushed affair.

On vacation, food shopping can be the opposite. The first day we were at Santa Maria’s folks’ house, I took the Nina and Pinta with me to the local Wegmans grocery store, and I was in paradise. The cart was as large as an aircraft carrier, and the aisles as broad as the Indian Ocean. I was so relaxed that we spent two-and-half hours in the store.

As a result of my massive shopping expedition, we had delicious meals. Lobster and mushroom risotto for New Year’s Eve, and black-eyed peas and collard greens the following day.

Our New Year’s Day gathering was the last of many family dinners this holiday season. First there was Christmas Eve dinner at my sisters (where my brother-in-law roasted whole fish and made a super savory pasta-with-anchovies side). Then there was Christmas dinner at my mothers. For both meals, my extended family was assembled around the table (or tables, as the case may have been). Aside from the cooking I did while visiting my in-laws, though, I took it pretty easy this holiday season. All of those meals were cooked by someone else. Santa Maria, on the other hand, contributed to every meal.

She made a multitude of desserts, and my favorite was a chocolate pudding that is good all year round—really fast, and really delicious. The recipe is adapted from Laurie David’s “The Family Dinner,” and it's true to its name. Santa Maria just makes it with leaner milk, and darker chocolate. The kids go mad for it.

 Chocolate Pudding Fast

  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 3 cups skim or 1% milk
  • 4 ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped (Santa Maria uses a 3.5 ounce bar of Green & Black’s organic 70% dark chocolate)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¼ teaspoon salt

Stir the sugar, cocoa powder, and cornstarch together in a medium-sized saucepan. Gradually stir in the milk. Heat, whisking constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture begins to boil and thicken, about 10 minutes.

Add the chocolate. Turn off the stove. Gently whisk until the chocolate is completely melted.

Stir in the vanilla and the salt. Pour into small custard cups. Serve warm or at room temperature.  For a special occasion, like Christmas Day dinner at Grandma’s, top with whipped cream!  Sprinkle a crushed candy cane on top!!

Note: If y0u don’t have cocoa powder, just use another ounce (about a third of a 3.5 ounce bar) of dark chocolate.

Makes 10 small or 5 generous servings (Can be doubled, as was the case over the holidays, above. It can be served in large bowls, but little ramekins are best.)

Thanksgiving Fallout: A Tasty Oatcake Recipe

Our plan for Thanksgiving was to spend it out of town with Santa Maria's folks, but everything was thrown for a spin last Wednesday when Pinta came down with strep throat, and we couldn't get on the road in time to visit them. The doctor said that twenty-four hours of antibiotics and no fever meant that she wasn't contagious, though, so I called my sister, who was hosting a big gathering in Connecticut with my extended family, to see if she had room at her table. "Of course," she said, and that's where we went.

My sister did have one request, though. She wanted us to bring a side dish. She suggested Santa Maria's biscuits, but they don't travel well (and actually suffer in the time it takes them to get from the oven to the table), so that wasn't a good choice. Because we were planning on being out of town, our pantry was nearly empty (our refrigerator looked like one from the quintessential Manhattan apartment, with plenty of empty shelves for leftover take-out containers), but we did have oats in the cupboard. Oatmeal is a staple of our winter breakfasts, and Santa Maria also knows how to make them into delicious, if crumbly, oatcakes. They're great for breakfast, as a side for a big dinner, or as a dessert treat. Here's her recipe:

Santa Maria's Mom's Scottish Oatcakes


  • 2 1/2 cups of organic rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup of organic flour
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar or organic maple syrup
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 cup melted organic butter
  • 1/2 cup milk

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine the dry ingredients; mixing them well.

Stir in the melted butter and then the milk (you can then crush the oats a bit with your hands, which is especially fun for the wee ones).

Press the mixture into a buttered 11 x 6" pan and bake in oven until
golden brown (about 20 to 25 minutes).

Slice into any shapes you like and serve warm with more butter and
some honey, or just plain with a glass of cold milk.

Notes: This is a great recipe to cook with kids, and it can also be made gluten-free by substituting quinoa flour in place of the wheat flour.

Grandma's Applesauce: A Guest Post

Once, when I was a boy, I wrote a report for school about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, and I’ve been fascinated by the span ever since. Now that I live in the borough, I’ve had many chances to cross it, and I still marvel at it. Just the other day, I had an opportunity to talk with Clifford W. Zink, an historian whose latest book, “The Roebling Legacy,” traces the history of the family that built the bridge.

 “The Roebling Legacy” is a marvelous book, full of details about the family’s technological innovations and many pictures of their various accomplishments beyond the Borough of Kings. Clifford will be at the PowerHouse Arena, a bookstore near the bridge, on next Tuesday, November 29, at 7 p.m. to talk about his book.

In the meantime,  Clifford, who lives in New Jersey and who cooks for his wife and two teenage children, was kind enough to share his grandmother’s recipe for applesauce. It seems like just the kind of thing to make and serve for Thanksgiving, though it might be a bit late in the week to whip up a batch. In that case, it’s the kind of thing to occupy the weekend following the holiday, when everyone is still around and looking for something to do.

Grandma's Applesauce

Grandma thoroughly spoiled my bother and I while we were growing up.  She had emigrated from Germany to Manhattan in 1906 at the age of 18, and went shopping every day for fresh foods.  Her soups, chicken paprikas, and wiener schnitzel were delicious all year round, but summers were special when she made her crepes with berries and her open-topped peach cake with a soft crust.  In the fall she woke us up for school with the aroma of her apple fritters frying on the stove, and after school her thin crust apple pies were beautiful to behold and scrumptious to eat.  When Mom asked her years later for her recipes, Grandma replied, "What recipes?  You just put in a little of this and a little of that, and you taste it and you know when it's right." 

My kids love applesauce I make based on Grandma's, and the here's the first go at writing it down:

Start with a dozen or more fresh, uncoated apples, about 3/4s of them golden delicious and the rest slightly tart macintosh or winesap.  You can mix in other varieties but try to keep the 3-1 sweet-to-tart ratio.  

Peel, core and cube the apples, and place them in a deep pot.  Add about 3/4 of an inch of fresh apple cider (a little more if you're using more apples), cover the pot and cook on low to medium heat.  Check every few minutes to make sure that the cider is lightly bubbling without boiling away.  If the cider gets too low, add just enough to keep about 3/4 of an inch in the bottom of the pot, and keep the pot covered.  After about 30 minutes or so, depending on the amount and mix of apples, crush the apple cubes repeatedly with a potato masher or similar instrument.  If the mix is a bit dry, you can add just a little cider.  Keep crushing until you get to a consistency you like, and then it's ready to eat, warm, plain, on ice cream or yogurt.  And eating it cold later on brings out other delicious flavors.  

No sugar or honey, please, just taste the natural sweetness of the apples and cider.  I used to add some raisins, and a touch of cinnamon, and you can, too, but now I like to taste just the serendipitous sweetness of mixing different types of apples.  As Grandma said, "You know when it's right."

Progressive Dinner Wrap Up: A Meeting of the Macaroons

Turrell3 reduced size copy
Friday was Veterans Day. I had to work, but the children had the day off from school, and Santa Maria took them to MoMA PS1, the contemporary-art museum in Long Island City. When they were there, they had a chance to see one of my favorite pieces of art, James Turrell’s Meeting (1986).

That’s a picture of it, above, and according to the museum, “Meeting is composed of a square room with a rectangular opening cut directly into the ceiling. Carefully calculated artificial lights produce an orange glow on the white walls of the room, permitting the viewer to appreciate the intensity of the sky’s color. As Turrell described it: ‘There’s this four-square seating that’s inside, seating toward each other, having a space that created some silence, allowing something to develop slowly over time, particularly at sunset. Also, this Meeting has to do with the meeting of space that you’re in with the meeting of the space of the sky.’”

“Meeting” is usually only open, weather permitting, in the afternoon, but because it’s a part of the museum’s “September 11” exhibition, it has extended hours. Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria were able to visit it when they first arrived. Afterwards, they had lunch at the museum’s café, where they picked up some macaroons. Later, they brought the cookies home to me.

Now it’s my turn to bring some macaroons home to you. To follow up on my progressive dinner experience, I’m sharing Rebecca Christiansen’s macaroon recipe, from her amazing progressive dinner. The recipe is her grandmother’s, and it sounds delicious:

R.C.’s Bubbe’s Almond Macaroons


  •     1 cup whole almonds
  •     1 cup of granulated sugar
  •     one Large egg white
  •     1/2 t of almond extract
  •     confectioner's sugar
  •     about 16 whole almonds

Preheat oven to 350°F. and lightly butter a baking sheet, put parchment over the butter and then butter the parchment - goofy but it makes the bottoms of the cookies nice and crispy but not crunchy. .

In a food processor you can pulse the almonds with granulated sugar until its a powder.  Add egg white, almond extract, and a pinch salt and pulse until combined. Roll mixture into 16 balls, about 1 inch in diameter, and arrange about 2 inches apart on the baking sheet you prepared.  Take a drinking glass and flatten the balls and dust lightly with confectioners' sugar. Gently press 1 almond into each cookie.

Bake macaroons in middle of oven 10 minutes, or until pale golden. 

*You can also color these with a couple squeezes of a gel food color - I made them pale red (not pink but not full on red because I find red baked goods alarming) for our Illini party.  You can also frost them and sandwich them together.  But its best you eat them in three to four days.

**Frost - I mean chocolate ganache but there is an almond extract frosting that would work nicely with all the other almond flavors.

***Okay so my bubbe substitutes amaretto for the extract with great results, I only say that because sometimes you can't put alcohol in the mix you know?