I'm amazed at how superior your vanilla is!
- Des, The Grommet
I opened the bottle of your vanilla extract last weekend to bake some cookies and the difference in taste is extraordinary." – Judy

Savory Herbed Cheddar Shortbread

These are the appetizer of your dreams, the kind you’d most want with a beverage of choice at the end of a work-week, or sitting outside with friends on a late summer afternoon while dinner cooks on a grill. Or just about anytime you want something both savory and soothing. My only caveat is that these Herbed Cheddar Shortbread cookies are very addictive, so be prepared!

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Hibiscus Refresher

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As the name of this beverage implies, it is made from the deep crimson or magenta calyces (sepals) of  the roselle flower: Hibiscus sabdariffa. It is drunk either hot as a tea or cold as a beverage pretty much worldwide, though the name varies from region to region. In Mexico and Latin America it is known as Flor de Jamaica, Rosa de Jamaica or just plain Agua de Jamaica. On the other hand, in Jamaica, where it likely originated as a beverage, it is known as Sorrel. In Australia, Roselle. It is equally popular in much of Asia, the Middle East and Africa. To a lesser degree it is drunk in Europe and the US, though in California it is sold as an Agua Frescas in Mexican restaurants. I first had it in Mexico and later, Guatemala and it has been one of my favorite go-to summer beverages ever since.

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Easy, Delicious Cheese Souffle

I have a confession to make. Until yesterday, I have never made a cheese soufflé. This is a somewhat startling revelation given I’ve been cooking since I was five years old. When I was younger, I was intimidated by the idea that it might fail and I would have what I assumed would look like a pancake. (It won’t). This was of especial concern if I had guests waiting for a spectacular dinner that failed.

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Best Ever Vegan Chocolate Cake

Recently I made “A Perfectly Delicious Chocolate Cake” as a birthday gift for a friend. One of the recipients of a slice of cake was completely taken by it and wanted to make it for his partner’s birthday. The problem was it needed to be vegan. I suggested that I would experiment to create a foolproof recipe for a really good vegan cake. He agreed.

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Flo Braker’s Flourless Chocolate Torte

 

Flo Braker flourless chocolate torte

This rich, creamy, dense flourless chocolate cake serves as a perfect dish for Passover Seder. A little goes a long way, so it can easily serve eight, but it also keeps well for left overs. A delightful dessert for those on a gluten free diet, this cake is versatile and delicious. However, don’t expect leftovers unless you are four or less enjoying this cake. It’s exceptionally good! Another thing I love about this cake is how the honey makes the glaze glisten. A wonderful way to celebrate the ancient land of milk and honey!

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Carrot Cake Cupcakes with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting

These moist, nutty, carrot cake cupcakes are a family favorite, both for birthdays or for an everyday treat. This recipe makes 1 1/2 dozen cupcakes, for easy individual servings, but can also be made into a 2 layer cake. Made with coconut sugar, if you choose to eat them as muffins, without the cream cheese frosting, they make a tasty, low-glycemic addition to brunch.

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Earthy Delicious Baked Mushrooms with Cheese

Mushrooms are so amazing! They make a flavorful meat substitute and help to strengthen our immune system, a big plus during the winter and early spring. Using a variety of mushrooms adds more flavor and texture to this easy-to make dish. The mushrooms can be cooked ahead of time, then baked just before dining.  It’s good as an entrée, side dish or appetizer.  Use a cast iron skillet as I did, and it can go from oven to table and remain warm as cast iron cools down slowly.

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Baba Ghanoush

A lot of people have a love/hate relationship with eggplant. Believe me, I get it. Unless eggplant is cooked properly, it can be a chewy, rubbery, unpleasant experience. Baked until tender, eggplant yields and absorbs the wonderful flavors of the vegetables, sauce, and spices that envelop it. And this is true of silky-smooth Baba Ghanoush, a very popular dip that originated in Lebanon (the Levant) and popular throughout Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern countries. While Baba Ghanoush is available in many markets, like so many things, homemade is often the best.

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Spinach Salad with Pesto Dressing and Pistachios

One of the popular dishes David Jackman served at the 2019 Vanilla and Chocolate Festival, was spinach salad with a pesto dressing. A couple of details made it a stand-out salad. The baby spinach leaves were sliced as thinly as possible then coated in pesto made with baby arugula and pistachios, and topped with coarsely toasted pistachios. It’s unique, delicious, joyfully messy and you’ll want to check your teeth after eating it, but it’s worth it!

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Grapefruit and Avocado Salad with Citrus, Mint and Vanilla Dressing

This is a refreshing winter salad when everything citrus shines. Ruby grapefruit are sweet and heavy with juice. If you can’t eat grapefruit, navel oranges are in season and, if Cara Cara oranges are available, choose them; they’re exceptional! Some people believe they are a cross between a grapefruit and an orange. They aren’t, so don’t worry if you can’t eat grapefruit.  Mandarins or tangerines are a snap to add in this salad as there’s no need to segment them. Do take a moment to remove the “strings” off the segments, however.

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Fresh Cream of Celery Soup

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Celery soup appears to have fallen by the wayside over the years, as has celery in general. It’s too bad as celery is a nutritional powerhouse as well as low in calories. And, it tastes good! I remember as a child even Campbell’s canned soup had Cream of Celery, which was often used in condensed form for the liquid in the ubiquitous casseroles of the 50’s. Actually, maybe that’s reason celery soup fell out of fashion; the canned version wasn’t anything to write home about. At any rate, I really like this soup and I hope you’ll try it as it’s really good. On a cold afternoon or evening, add a grilled cheese sandwich and you’re set.

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Almond Rum Cake

This delicate Rum Almond Cake was conceived as a coffee cake  but it deserves to be elevated to a much higher status if for no other reason than it’s too boozy for a 10:00 am coffee break! As you can see from the photo, it was the ideal New Year’s Eve cake — moist, flavorful and rich enough that a small slice was sufficient.

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Dark Chocolate Truffles – Traditional or Vegan

 Chocolate Speaks: Who can resist Dark Chocolate Truffles? If you are new at candy making, truffles are one of the easiest candies to make. Even better, you can make traditional truffles using heavy cream and butter, or you can choose a healthier version by making them vegan. Follow the directions and I guarantee you’ll be a star. The trick is using the best ingredients.

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Buche de Noel

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Although the French name for this beautiful dessert means Christmas Log, the origins of the custom of bringing in a Yule log, building a blazing fire, then lighting candles from it are pagan in origin as is the Christmas tree and decorating with holly and other greens.  I like to think of these ancient traditions as a way to bring light and joy into the dark nights of winter for everyone, regardless of our ancestry or religion. And what could be prettier than a chocolate sponge cake filled with cream, frosted with chocolate ganache and dusted with snowy powdered sugar? Add some meringue mushrooms or sprigs of holly, and you have a lovely and meaningful completion of a holiday meal. 

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Russian Tea Cakes

Whenever I think about holiday baking, Russian Tea Cakes (aka Mexican Wedding Cookies) are at the forefront of my mind. What’s not to love about the buttery, crumbly deliciousness of these cookies. with their fragrant toasted nuts and powdered sugar spilling everywhere? Okay, the powdered sugar part can be annoying. What I do love about these cookies is that they’re pretty much popular worldwide with essentially the same ingredients though some come with a few special touches.

I recently found a unique version of these cookies in Sunset Magazine. Created by Yigit Pura of “Tout Sweet Patisserie,” they are noted for their extreme crispness and toasty-brown butter flavor. I also like that they’re made with vanilla bean paste. The recipe calls for 1 tablespoon cognac or brandy. Prefer a different alcohol or want to substitute a liqueur? Why not? And, if you don’t want alcohol, you can substitute milk.

Yigit suggests creating cookies 1-1/2 tablespoons each. I personally prefer these cookies smaller because the powdered sugar can be overwhelming with big cookies. Just like the alcohol used, you get to decide on the size you’d like to make the cookies. Just remember to adjust the bake time accordingly.

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For an update on the 2016 vanilla shortage, please see "Why is Vanilla so Expensive?"

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