Monday, May 16, 2022

Early Days at Sur La Table and a Souvenir from Ladakh

The rock that Deb brought me after her trip in 2000

My friend Deborah worked with me at the new Berkeley Sur La Table when it opened in 1996. Sur La Table was founded by Shirley Collins in 1972 and had a single retail location in Seattle's Pike Place Market until Seattle power COUPLE Renee and Carl Behnke bought it in 1995. We heard rumors that Ms. Collins had overextended the store's budget by buying too many pieces of French Copper and was forced to sell. In any case, the new owners wanted to expand and decided to open a second store in the developing 4th Street area of Berkeley. All the French copper cookware found its way to the Berkeley store, adding to its allure. I was hired to curate the extensive cookbook collection and Deb came along shortly after we opened. It was an exciting time to be working on booming 4th Street and in the energized Sur La Table spinoff. The company was later sold to an international corporation based in Bahrain and is no longer the fun store we opened. 

Four years years after the Berkeley store opened, Deb decided to travel to Ladakh, the mountainous region in Indian-administered Kashmir which borders on China. It's known as "little Tibet" and is home to thousands of Tibetan Buddhist refugees. I thought the trip was a crazy idea, but I did enjoy following her altitude training and itinerary, which had her arriving and departing from New Delhi.

Tibetan characters on a small rock that I keep on my dresser

 After she left  there were of course no emails, no instagram posts or cellphone photo exchanges, and we didn't hear about the trip until she got home. I remember Deb looking fit, thin and tan when she returned to work, and she had many stories to relate in her inimitable fashion. One included the story behind the souvenir she so kindly brought back for me:

    She had picked up several rocks in New Delhi en route to her trek in Ladakh and then when she arrived she told me,  "she paid a Tibetan monk personally to engrave the mantra 'keep moving' on one side and the date, 8/5/00, on the other."  Since the  Buddhist monk spoke no english, we were never sure of the exact translation. 

I have kept this prized possession on my dresser as she advised and have glanced at it now and then.  The other day I picked it up and was shocked to see that 22 years had passed. Then I wondered what that scrawled blue message actually said; I had always thought it was in Hindi. Luckily Sherab, a close friend of my sister's in CT, got his PhD in Sanskrit at Berkeley, lived on the subcontinent for many years and is fluent in a number of its languages. I sent him a picture of the rock and waited for his reply.

Sherab came up with all the information we could possibly want!  First, he confirmed the language as Tibetan.  He said that Tibetans are famous for writing on rocks. All over Tibet one sees prayer stones and other messages scrawled on rocks, so these small souvenirs made sense.

Now for the translation: Sherab pointed out that Tibetans were not likely to say "keep moving" and without even consulting his dictionary he pieced together a poetic rendition true to the Tibetan spirit and a fitting memento of my friend's trip to Ladakh.

                                        From the path, a beautiful way

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

A Seder Table fit for any Spring Celebration

My sister in law Ricki invited 8 friends to a Seder on Friday evening. Here's a detail with Haggadah from her always spectacular Passover table.


                                                             Or could it be an Easter table?

                      As usual she seamlessly blended the two Spring holidays in one riotous setting

  Before we left for San Francisco on April 15th, she texted me a preview of the table that awaited us, so I knew beforehand that this was another masterpiece

The last time we all met for this annual event was in 2019, before the pandemic forced us to cancel the next two. I recorded the details of that lovely party HERE.  You can observe the very different table  below set with French china and decorated with centerpieces of pastel roses and pink lilies

One of the blooming centerpieces on the 2019 Seder. table

  This year she mixed Italian plates from Deruta with Provencal Pierre Deux napkins, charming paper placemats with lemons and dyed egg 'place cards' with names written on each one. 

  The centerpieces consisted of vases of hyacinths, daffodils and hydrangeas among other spring flowers

Here's Ricki's seat marked by a dyed aqua egg in front of the traditional Seder Plate. The bowl on the right is filled with her dynamite charoset along with symbolic maror (horseradish),  a bitter herb (parsley,)  and a lamb shank .

                                                                 THE MENU

Our Seder meal was traditional but simplified to suit the guests' preferences. Our preference is to indulge in Ricki's awesome Matzo Ball Soup and her tasty apple and cinnamon Charoset spooned onto matzoh, and not have to save room for a main course that always follows. She makes her broth ahead of time with one chicken for every 2 people. This ratio results in a rich, tasty broth with plenty of chicken to add to the soup along with her masterful matzo balls. She learned the technique for light flavorful balls in her mother's kitchen in Walnut Creek.

Matzo ball soup isn't very photogenic, but boy is it good. This year we all ate our fill and then enjoyed side dishes that the hostess had assigned.

Sande prepared perfectly simmered asparagus that she bought at the Marin Farmers Market, from Fiddler's Green  situated in Yolo County.

I brought my first noodle kugel, since that's what she requested. Some years ago a guest ordered one from Zabar's, the well known Jewish Deli in New York, but kugels are simple to put together so I made one from a recipe in Bon Appetit. It turned out really well,  better than Zabar's, so  I plan to make another one next year.

Lots of good red and white wine spurred bursts of hilarity during the often solemn reading of the Haggadah.  We broke for dinner halfway through and thoroughly enjoyed our Passover meal. Then we finished the reading and drank more wine with Ricki's homemade Almond Macaroons and my  Lemon Bars.  We finally parted at midnight, looking forward, as always, to next years celebration at Ricki's.

Monday, March 28, 2022

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make.... LEMON BARS

                          This is the year we finally got lemons on our lemon tree- lots of lemons

Small new lemon tree at top right

     Dean planted it in front of our house 5 years ago to replace a gnarled old tree that he despised.

For 3 years we had no lemons. Then last year one lone lemon appeared and was promptly stolen 

This year I can pick lemons to my hearts content and finally make the lemon bars I have been craving with my own lemons. My lemons are Eurekas, which I prefer to the sweeter Meyer lemons (a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange). I adore the puckery, citrus taste and  bright yellow hue of a Eureka. Above, two freshly picked lemons rest on a ceramic plate - a precious souvenir from a trip to Puglia

The lemon bar suggestion actually came from my brother Tom when we were talking bars right before Thanksgiving. This was long before we had any blossoms on our lemon tree. My brother lives not far from NYC in the small town of Allendale, NJ and we communicate sporadically by phone. His wife's daughter Chryssa had just baked a pan of pumpkin blondies with chocolate and pecans for him and he was raving about them. The recipe was featured in the New York Times Food Section and he insisted that I make them for Thanksgiving. He added that I should then try Lanis's lemon bars. I didn't get around to making the blondies for awhile, but when I did I was impressed. They are unbelievably scrumptious!

Pumpkin blondies with chocolate and pecans are a fall favorite

Lanis, my brother's wife, was a prolific gardener, a talented painter and an outstanding baker. She excelled at whatever she did. Tragically, she was felled by a fatal stroke while speaking at her Bergen County garden club a year and a half ago. She was a healthy, active 76 year old, so her sudden death was a shock to everyone. 

In the aftermath of her death, Lanis's daughters Chryssa and Mary put together an ingenious booklet of their mother's recipes. They included facsimiles of the spattered, yellowing recipe cards with Lanis's  notes and had it bound into a delightful package which they distributed to family and friends. I was lucky enough to receive a copy. Here is the touching preface to the book:

"Mom had many talents, one of which was her incredible knack for baking mouthwatering desserts, cakes, cookies and breakfast treats. Many of our memories center around these baked goods and will forever bring a  smile to our faces. We hope that you enjoy this compilation of favorite recipes which have been well loved and written all over by Mom... Love Chryssa and Mary"

A page with an an old recipe card handwritten by Lanis

The recipe in Lanis's  book seemed like a good place to try my hand at lemon bars. Unexpectedly, I had trouble right from the start. The crust ingredients didn't come together in the food processor so the mixture was too floury and not crumbly enough. It still wouldn't amalgamate  properly when I pressed it into the pan, plus the 9" pan was too big for the small amount of shortbread crumbs, creating a crust that was too fragile.  I proceeded nonetheless and baked it at 325 as noted. After 20 minutes the layer wasn't browned so I turned up the oven and baked it 10 minutes more. Meanwhile I made the excellent lemon topping, but when I poured it over the hot pastry, the result was a filling that wasn't substantial enough for my taste. An 8" pan would have done the trick. Unfortunately, on the whole, I was disappointed with the recipe.

So began my deep dive into the land of lemon bars. Searching for the perfect bar, I found as many variations as bakers who make them. The lemon topping variables consist of the amount of lemon juice to sugar, the number of eggs, the size of the pan and the (small) amount of flour or even cornstarch added. I discovered that the more recent the recipe, the more tart the filling.

The press-in crust, which makes up an important half of the bar, seems to always consist of flour, butter and sugar but differs in the method of mixing the ingredients. Lanis et al. cut cold butter into flour with a food processor, Ina Garten used a mixer, and David Lebovitz melted butter and mixed it in by hand. The pan could be metal or ceramic and varied in dimensions from 9 x 9  to  8 x 8 to 9 x 13. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that the baking temperature varies from 300 to 350 degrees.

                    Lemon bars with an under baked shortbread crust from Sally's Baking Addiction blog

                                    Ina Garten's typically delicious Lemon Bars on the Food Network

                         An example of squares with a pale, thin crust, from The Preppy Kitchen Blog

           Finally I struck gold with a recipe by David Lebovitz, using a whole lemon ground in a food processor

David's bars sport a rich dark buttery crust, made by blending flour with melted butter, which is easily pressed into an 8 " pan, and baked at 350. His are the best lemon bars yet, avoiding both flabby, pale crusts and the thin, anemic filling that I dislike in other recipes. The whole ground lemon gives the filling a powerful zing. Here is his ingredient list, meant to be baked in an 8" pan. For full directions check out his blog post here: David's Whole Lemon Bars


  • 1 cup (140g) flour
  • 1/4 cup (50g) sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons (115g) melted unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Lemon Topping

  • 1 lemonorganic or unsprayed
  • 1 cup (200g) sugar
  • 3 tablespoons (45ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3 large eggsroom temperature
  • 4 teaspoons corn starch
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons (45g) melted unsalted butter
  • Optional: powdered sugarfor serving

My rendition of whole lemon bars ready to be taken out of the oven

But whether they're thick or thin, tart or sweet, I echo what Pat Prager, the prize winning baker, said in J. Ryan Stradal's delightful novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest: "Who Doesn't like bars?"

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Kenan Cookies or (Super Scrumptious Oatmeal Gems)

White out conditions in Connecticut during winter storm Kenan

The weekend of January 29th I was fixated on the blizzard that was battering the East Coast, concerned that my sister was safe in her country house in rural Colebrook CT, where she spends weekends. Through texts she reported that she had been out shoveling twice already and making only slight headway; she told me that the roads aren't plowed until the storm has cleared. To keep warm and busy she decided to make oatmeal cookies, but couldn't find the excellent recipe I had sent her months ago. This required more messages back and forth.

Clear skies and plowed streets in Colebrook, Connecticut      

By Monday, when the skies were blue and the roads were plowed, she volunteered to write a guest post about her experience during the winter storm named Kenan.  Here's another of Lucia's guest posts from the East Coast:


"When the wind is whipping around and the temperature is frigid, there is nothing nicer than a warm kitchen. Turning on the oven makes my kitchen toasty, but in order to justify it, baking is requisite! That was the story of last Saturday with Winter Storm Kenan in full force on the east coast.

I baked what Taya and I have renamed Super Scrumptious Oatmeal Gems, from a note scribbled on the original and highly annotated, handwritten recipe card. We both love authentic recipes handed down with love."

Here's the original handwritten card. The recipe is printed at end of post

"In my Kenan version, the cookies became a kind of compost confection: I added chopped dates that were languishing in the back of the pantry; they were a little dry, so I soaked them in the last of the Christmas brandy, chopped and added them. The recipe calls for coconut, but I'm not a fan, so chopped nuts, dates, and the end of a box of raisins substituted.

The warm oven belongs to my vintage Chambers stove, Model C, circa 1948  (pictured below). Designed and built for a much more cost-conscious time, its heavy frame holds Rockwool insulation and retains heat after it is turned off. One of its claims to fame was that it continued to cook food even after the gas was extinguished. The extra-heavy iron oven floor ensures even distribution of radiant heat. Baked goods turn out superb!"

Chambers Stove  c. 1948 in my Connecticut kitchen

          Here's the recipe for super scrumptious Oatmeal Gems

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup (125 grams) light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup sugar (scant)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 3/4 cup raisins 
  • 1/2 cup coconut (optional)
  • 1 cup walnuts, chopped ( or more to taste)

Set oven to 350 degrees

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, brown and white sugars, eggs and vanilla until smooth. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, bakings soda, baking powder and salt. Stir the dry ingredients into the butter/sugar mixture. Stir in the oats, walnuts and coconut, if using.

Drop by large teaspoons onto a nonstick baking sheet and bake 10 to 15 minutes. Do not brown too much. Place on racks and store when cool.

Here's a tin of freshly baked oatmeal gems

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Christmas Treats for the Birds

Peanut Butter and Old Flour Balls - An Annual Christmas Tradition

The sticky dough is formed into rough balls

Every holiday season my sister gets rid of her old flour and buys a fresh bag for Christmas baking, usually a 5 lb. bag of King Arthur. Flour actually does have an expiration date. This year was noteworthy because she dumped the remains of the 20 lb. bag she had scrounged up during pandemic shortages. Then, as in previous years, she mixed the stale flour with other discarded items to make balls for the birds outside her Connecticut house. This year she inherited some Jiff peanut butter that she wouldn't dream of eating, and some old mixed nuts. She added enough water to make the mixture stick together and formed the mass of sticky dough into small balls. Of course there are many elaborate recipes for homemade bird treats on the Web, but she thinks it's much more fun and ecological to compost her expired food supplies this way . 

Note the pumpkin seeds placed on top to create an appetizing bird treat

Pictured above are some finished balls ready to be scattered in the woods on Christmas Eve.

                 Have a Merry Compost Christmas and a Happy Composting New Year!

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Thanksgiving Pies with a Few Family Variations

Pear Tarte Tatin is my sister Lucia's specialty. She wrote: "I'm not a pie maker at all, but every Thanksgiving, I manage to pull off a Tarte Tatin-- not the traditional apple tarte, but a variant suggested in a Molly O'Neill recipe originally published in the New York Times in 1993."  Always a picky eater, Lucia doesn't like the traditional pumpkin or pecan pies, so when she found this French upside down pear tart, she made it her annual contribution to Thanksgiving dinner.

Lucia's 2021 Pear Tarte Tatin

Writing from New York, she goes on to offer a few notes on her Thanksgiving dessert: "I use Bartlett pears---a pedestrian choice, I know. But they are available out of season here. Anjou pears are too juicy and they give off too much liquid as they carmelize. My pears are always quite hard, even with the less juicy Bartletts; I still allow the pears and juice to cook down about twice as long as the recipe says."

"I have an old teflon pan which I use because it is the right size, and also the tarte slides out easily on the flip."

"A last note---don't fear the flip. It's a scary moment, but when the pan is removed, the result will be delicious even  if you have to wipe the sticky juice off the sides of the plate."

  Molly O'Neill's recipe for Pear Tarte Tatin on the New York Times Website

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Position rack in bottom third of oven. Peel the pears, cut them in half lengthwise and core them. Place in a large bowl and toss with the lemon juice. Set aside.
  2. Place the sugar in a 10-inch skillet or tarte Tatin pan over low heat. When some of the sugar begins to melt, begin stirring with a wooden spoon until all of the sugar is melted and begins to turn a pale golden color.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat. Arrange the pear halves in the pan spoke fashion, cut side up, with the narrow end of the pears toward the center, as close together as possible. Fill in the center with the remaining pears.
  4. Cut the butter into small pieces and scatter over the pears. Place the pan over medium heat. Cook until the sugar turns a deep caramel color and the juices released from the pears are nearly evaporated, about 15 to 20 minutes.
  5. Roll the dough and cover the pears according to the directions in the pastry recipe. Bake until the crust is golden brown, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside for 10 minutes.
  6. Run a small, sharp knife around the edge of the tarte to loosen. Place a large plate or platter over the skillet. Holding the plate and skillet together using 2 kitchen towels, carefully but quickly invert the tarte onto the plate. Let stand a few minutes to cool slightly. Cut into wedges and serve with or creme fraiche if desired.
Lucia swears by Ms. O'Neill's pie crust recipe, which contains an egg yolk, so here is the link: 

                         Now on to my holiday favorite--- Pumpkin Pie

    Taya's 2020 Pumpkin Pie 

I can't remember when I first started baking this pie, but I know it was well before I mastered the art of pie crusts. Our mother never made pies so we didn't learn that skill at her apron strings. I struggled for years until Pauline, a friend from Sur La Table, taught me to mix the dough in the food processor, chill it and roll it out giving it a turn every so often to prevent sticking. That works every time. Unlike Lucia's crust, I don't add an egg yolk.

My pie recipe appears in Cooking With Herbs and Spices by Craig Claiborne, legendary food editor of the New York Times from 1957 to '86. My copy is spattered and worn with use, but sports the original dust jacket. I drag it out every November and adjust amounts every so often, penciling notes in the margin. I prefer more spices, less molasses and less evaporated milk than the original. After much experimentation, I can say that I prefer Libby's canned pumpkin which, as it turns out, is actually squash.


Here is the page with my faithful pumpkin pie recipe from Cooking with Herbs and Spices

A New Addition to the holiday pie roster---Apple Pie Cookies

A New addition to the Holiday pie roster

Two years ago I bought a Bon Appétit "special edition" booklet on the news stand, titled Essential Cookies. In it I spotted a recipe for Apple-Pie Cookies. Here's the description that precedes the recipe: "Each flaky cookie crust holds a dollop of cinnamon-flecked apple filling, creating a dessert that celebrates fall." I was sold and started baking!

The cookies were time-consuming, but fun to construct. I have a collection of cute little cookie cutters, so I chose the  mini pumpkin to cut out the hole in the "top crust."  Many recipes in the booklet were favorites from the now defunct Gourmet Magazine. Gourmet's recipes were always meticulously tested and came out perfectly. As expected, the fresh- baked cookies were winners and I knew I had a new holiday tradition.

Copied from my Essential Cookies booklet

Friday, November 26, 2021

Thanksgiving Table 2021 and a few Poems of Gratitude


As she does every year, my sister in law Ricki set a spectacular Thanksgiving table. I took this photo shortly after we arrived. The autumnal colors were ravishing in the glow of evening.  

Another view of the centerpiece

                Quite a different Thanksgiving table setting, taken in afternoon light 2019.


An entire spatchcock turkey -- Quite a feast for two

Then we skipped a year to dine at home during the pandemic in 2020. I set a no frills table, but I did roast a buttermilk brined, spatchcock, heritage turkey and baked my traditional pumpkin pie. Dean whipped up his signature mashed potatoes. Everything was splendid but we really missed our family of choice and Ricki's excellent gravy, a skill we have yet to master.

Last year's pie for just the 2 of us

 2021- I enjoy finding my place card on an elegantly set table once again

Shortly before the event Ricki sent this email to our "Dear Thanksgiving Family," 

"During our meal, let each of us bring a story, a poem, a grace/blessing or favorite prose that inspires reflection on gratitude, the healing power of community, wisdom that aids positive attitudes through challenging times. We have all lived long enough to recall hardships of past eras, yet the harshness of hate made visible through web-based media clearly requires antidotes of "goodness" and reflections on loving kindness and transformation."

                               Dean penned some thoughtful lines:

                               Today we gather with bonds of love
                               Giving thanks for the blessings bestowed from above
                               And as we enjoy our blessed good fortune
                               We'll send to the needy a generous portion
                  Taya followed with a verse about Ricki's Shitzu and my calico kitty

                                 Now Allie and Wink, our favorite pets
                                 We lavish with love without regrets
                                 They fill our lives with joy and love
                                 For them we thank the stars above

                            Sande brought a poem that I admired and reprint below

                                                                           The first Green of Spring
                                                                  by David Budbill

 Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,
this sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting
to a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,

harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching
on this message from the dawn which says we and the world
are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And

even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we
will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here
now, today, and, my oh my! don’t these greens taste good.