quick Irish soda bread recipe | writes4food.com

Classic Irish soda bread.

Two things to love about Irish Soda Bread: First, it’s super easy to make. Second, it keeps quite well … in fact, I’d argue that it’s better toasted and buttered on Day 3 than it is the same day you make it.

This classic Irish Soda Bread recipe includes a ton of raisins and the spice and crunch of caraway seed. It would be a fun way to introduce your kids to bread-making: They’ll enjoy digging their mitts into this crumbly, shaggy dough and kneading it together.

If you’d like, you can portion generous half-cup scoops of this dough onto the lined baking sheet to make scones; you’ll want to reduce the baking time significantly, to about 20–25 minutes. Drizzle a simple powdered sugar glaze of the baked scones if you’d like.

Irish soda bread with raisins and caraway

4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
2 Tbsp. caraway seed
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into bits
2 cups raisins (dark and golden, or either)
1 1/3 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
1 tsp. baking soda

Preheat oven to 375 degrees; line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper. In a very large bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking powder. Add sugar and caraway seed and stir with a fork to combine. Using a pastry blender or your fingers, work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the raisins.

In a separate bowl, combine buttermilk, egg and baking soda and stir with a fork to combine well. Pour the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients and stir well with a fork. Here’s the fun part: Dig your hands into the bowl and work the dough to incorporate everything as much as you can. The dough will feel dry and floury; once you have it fairly combined, turn the dough and any loose flour and raisins out onto a clean work surface and continue to knead until the flour and raisins are fully combined. This will take a few minutes. Shape the dough into a round loaf that's 8 or 9 inches in diameter. Using a sharp  knife, make an X in the top, going about 1 inch deep (this helps the center of this dense bread to cook through). Bake for 1 hour; test for doneness by inserting a skewer into the middle of the bread (it should come out clean). If the bread needs more time, bake for an additional 10 minutes.

old fashioned chocolate birthday cake recipe

The Clara Project: chocolate birthday cake.

I haven’t shared a recipe from The Clara Project lately (read about the collection of vintage recipe cards and the project they inspired) … mostly because I’ve been saving this one up.

Allow a bit of backstory: When I had the pleasure of meeting Clara Shenefelt Williams and her daughter Jan last summer, I was charmed by the loving way they spoke about Clara’s late husband, Roy. Jan shared many memories of her parents’ relationship, and Clara said of Roy, “He was such a good man.” We discussed Clara’s old recipes, of course, and Jan recalled that Roy had a favorite chocolate cake, which Clara always made for his birthday.

After our meeting in August, I scouted through the vintage recipe collection to see if it contained the chocolate cake recipe. There are so many recipes in the stack, and several chocolate cake recipes (see the chocolate pudding cake recipe and the one-bowl chocolate cake recipe I’ve published previously). Would THE chocolate cake recipe be there?

It was. It’s on a card labeled “From the Recipe Files Of Loretta Tyndall”; the recipe is handwritten. There’s a note: “Roy’s favorite.” I set the recipe card aside. Until now. This week is Rob’s birthday, and I knew I had to make Roy’s favorite chocolate cake.

In honor of Roy, Rob and good men everywhere, enjoy.

Roy's favorite chocolate birthday cake

(makes a 9-inch layer cake)

3 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (Crisco)
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 375°. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans; cut a circle of waxed paper to fit the bottom of each pan, and grease and flour the paper. In a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water (or in a double-boiler), slowly melt the chocolate. (Watch carefully so the chocolate doesn't overheat and separate; don't multitask while you're doing this.) Set melted chocolate aside to cool. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, cream together the sugar and shortening until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in the vanilla, then the eggs one at a time. Stir in the melted chocolate until well combined.

In a glass measuring cup, stir together the buttermilk and baking soda. (This activates the soda's leavening properties.) Add half the buttermilk mixture to the batter and stir to combine. Add half the flour and stir to combine. Add the remaining buttermilk, then the remaining flour and stir well. Very slowly pour the boiling water into the batter and mix on low speed. (Careful: The batter may slosh about.) Batter will become thinner and glossy.

Divide the batter between the two prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of one cake comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cakes in their pans for about 20 minutes, then remove and cool completely before frosting.

A note on frosting: I had a box of King Arthur Flour's chocolate buttercream frosting mix on hand, so that's what I used to finish the cake. It's delicious. My very favorite scratch-made chocolate frosting recipe is Smitten Kitchen's Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting.

jambalaya-style risotto recipe | writes4food.com

Jambalaya-style risotto.

Not just because it’s Mardi Gras time—when all Cajun and Creole foods come into high fashion—but also because it’s so darn cold: Jambalaya is precisely the dish you want for dinner this week. Hearty, tomato-y, with complex flavors and a kick of spice, jambalaya fills the belly and sparks the imagination.

Instead of using the traditional long-grain white rice that forms the basis of a good jambalaya recipe, I figured I’d hack my favorite rice dish—risotto—with all the other jambalaya ingredients. I started by adding celery and red bell pepper to the onion base (this “Holy Trinity” of Cajun/Creole cooking—celery, onion and pepper—forms the basis of most recipes, just as “mirepoix”—celery, carrot, onion—underpins French cooking). I used dried herbs and spices to create a Cajun flavor, and filled out the recipe with andouille sausage and shrimp.

This jambalaya-risotto mashup turned out just the way I’d hoped. You can adjust the amount of cayenne to add heat, or offer a bottle of hot sauce at the table so everyone can spice it up as they’d like. I’m thinking a cold beer (Abita, if you’re being authentic) is the perfect accompaniment.

Note: A big thanks to the folks at Findlay Market for naming me and Cincinnati downtown-ophile Bob Schwartz as Queen and King of Mardi Gras. In spite of the icky weather, lots of people turned out, and it was a great time.

jambalaya-style risotto

(serves 4)

1 andouille sausage (uncooked), cut into slices
12 fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 cups chicken stock
2  Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 red or green bell pepper, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
2 roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 1/4 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1/3 cup dry white wine
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/4 tsp. paprika
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, plus more for serving
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
salt & pepper

Place the stock in a saucepan and keep at a gentle simmer while you’re cooking. In a heavy large saucepan over medium-low heat, add the olive oil; when it’s warm, add the sliced andouille sausage. Cook until the sausage is well browned; remove from pan. Add the diced onion, pepper, celery and a generous pinch of salt, and sauté, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are soft, about 8 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat with oil; cook until you see a white spot in the middle of the grains, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the wine and stir until it’s almost cooked off. Add the bay leaf to the pan. Begin adding the chicken stock about 3/4 cup at a time, stirring constantly. Continue stirring until the stock is absorbed; when you scrape a spoon across the bottom of the pan, it will leave a path. You want the risotto to be “thirsty” before adding more stock. When you've added about half the stock, stir in the oregano, thyme, paprika and cayenne.

The process of cooking, stirring and adding broth will take about 20 to 30 minutes, give or take. After about 20 minutes, begin tasting the risotto to see if it’s done. You want the dish to be creamy, with grains of rice that are firm but tender. If the rice has a bit of crunch when you sample it, keep stirring and adding broth. Cooking it too long will result in a mushy texture; don’t worry if you take it too far, as the risotto will still be tasty. With a bit of practice, you’ll get the perfect degree of doneness.

With the last addition of the stock, add the shrimp and chopped tomatoes; cook until the shrimp are pink and opaque, about 4 minutes. Remove the bay leaf, and stir in the Parmesan cheese. Season the risotto to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Top each serving with a dusting of Parmesan and chopped parsley.

best chocolate chip bar cookies EVER | writes4food.com

Awesome chocolate chip bar cookies.

You might think, “Hey, I don’t really need another chocolate chip cookie recipe.”

Yes, yes you do. These are awesome, truly—I daresay the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve had pretty much ever. More like shortbread, these salty-nutty-sweet cookies have a crispety-crumbly texture that I really love. (And they freeze beautifully … assuming you have any left to freeze.)

Just the right way to cure the will-winter-ever-end blues.

salty chocolate chunk bar cookies

(makes about 30, if you're stingy)

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. table salt
1/2 cup chocolate chips (see Note)
1/2 cup chocolate chunks, divided
1/2 cup good quality toasted unsalted pecans, coarsely chopped
1/4 tsp. good-quality flaky sea salt

Note: Use a combination of dark, milk or semi-sweet chocolate in this recipe. I like Barry Callebaut chocolate chunks from King Arthur Flour; if you don't have chocolate chunks on hand, just use 1 cup of chocolate chips, reserving 1/4 cup for topping as directed below.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or using a bowl and hand-held mixer), cream the butter until it's smooth; add the sugar and cream together until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Mix in vanilla extract. Add flour and table salt, mix gently to combine thoroughly. Add chocolate chips, 1/4 cup chocolate chunks and chopped pecans; mix to combine—the dough will be more crumbly than your typical cookie dough.

Line a rimmed 13-by-9-inch baking sheet with parchment paper (alternately, use a glass baking dish, though I'm not sure if that will alter the texture of the finished cookie). Place a plastic baggie over your hand (to prevent sticking) and use that to press the crumbly dough evenly into the paper-lined pan. Scatter the remaining 1/4 cup of chocolate chunks over the dough and sprinkle with 1/4 tsp. of flaky sea salt. Bake for 25 to 28 minutes, or until cookies are nicely browned and pulling away from the pan slightly. Cool for about 30 minutes, then use the parchment paper to carefully lift the cookie out of the pan and cut into squares. (These cookies get crispy, and cutting them after they're fully at room temperature is messy; better to cut them when they're just slightly warm.)

Findlay Mardi Gras Web Graphic_Small web copy

Mardi Gras fun.

How fun is this? The nice folks at Findlay Market have invited me to join this year’s Mardi Gras festivities on Sunday, March 2, as Mardi Gras Queen. Cincinnati downtowner and blogger extraordinaire Bob Schwartz will be Mardi Gras King. I’ve never been Queen of anything, so this is kind of a deal for me. Hooray!

I’m getting into the Mardi Gras mood, scouting for fun costume and makeup ideas and plotting out a New Orleans-style recipe to share here, which I’ll do early next week.

The festivities will include jazz and zydeco music, local beers and free food—and, of course, beads and throws. If you’re in Cincinnati, and if you’re as tired of this winter as I am, if you’re looking for something fun to do to celebrate Mardi Gras—will you join us at the Market on March 2 starting at 10:00?

overnight steel-cut oatmeal with quick caramelized bananas | writes4food.com

Creamy overnight oatmeal with brown sugar bananas.

I love homemade granola (see here and here and here), and I’m also fond of its warmth-in-a-bowl cousin, oatmeal. Usually, I’ll throw together a pan of old-fashioned oats in the morning, but I recently came across a method of cooking steel-cut oats—those tiny, whole grain marvels that cook into what’s called porridge in the UK—overnight. Easy! Delicious!

The method is simple: toast your steel-cut oats in a knob of sweet butter, which makes your kitchen smell like you’re baking oatmeal cookies. (For that matter, you can and should butter-toast regular old-fashioned or quick oats before cooking them in water.) Add water and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover the pan, take it off the heat, and let it sit on the stove overnight. In the morning? Perfectly cooked, super-quick, deliciously warming oatmeal to start your day.

I’ve enhanced the technique with some flavor additions and a topping of easy caramelized banana, which comes together in about 5 minutes as you’re reheating your oatmeal the next morning. You could sauté some apple slices in butter and sugar, as well. You could also skip the flavoring and use this overnight oatmeal recipe as a basis for a savory lunch: a big bowlful of oatmeal topped with a lightly fried egg, a smidgen of shredded cheese and lots of pepper.

I’m enjoying this overnight oatmeal so much I might start sprouting oat shoots from my ears!

creamy overnight oatmeal recipe with caramelized banana topping

(makes 4 servings)

for the overnight oatmeal:
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
1 cup steel-cut oats
3 cups water
generous pinch salt
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract (optional)
1/4 tsp. almond extract (optional)
1 cup almond or regular milk for serving

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat; add the oats and stir to coat them with butter. Toast the oats, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes (they'll smell wonderfully toasty, like baking oatmeal cookies). Add the water, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Cover the pan, turn off the heat, and leave the oatmeal to sit overnight. The oats will absorb the water and take on a perfectly toothy texture. The next morning, stir in the extracts, if using.

This recipe makes 4 (3/4-cup) servings. The oatmeal keeps well in the refrigerator. To serve, measure your cooked oatmeal into a pan and add 1/4 cup of milk. (I like almond milk for its nutty flavor that complements the oatmeal.) Heat for 5 minutes until warm and creamy.

For the caramelized bananas:
1/2 banana, peeled and sliced
1 tsp. unsalted butter
2 tsp. brown sugar

In a small skillet, melt the butter and brown sugar. Add the banana slices. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, flipping the bananas once, until they're soft and golden brown. Spoon the bananas and sugar syrup over a serving of oatmeal.

roasted tomato pizza sauce recipe

Roasted tomato pizza sauce.

When Rob and I traveled in Italy last summer (and boy, do I miss those hot Tuscan days as I sit here at my kitchen counter, shivering in my winter coat), our default lunch was pizza and a half-liter of the house wine at one of the many outdoor cafes in Lucca.

The pizza was always super simple: a thin, wood-grilled crust (though not the cracker-thin crust that seems to be in vogue at gourmet pizzerias here), a schmear of sauce, a few slices of mushrooms or mozzarella. In Italy, the pizzas we loved had barely a whisper of sauce—but the sauce was deeply, essentially, powerfully tomato-y. Not the watery, over-seasoned pizza sauce that the chains glop on the crust. Just tomato, cooked to a rich, velvety paste.

I wanted to figure out how to re-create that flavor-packed tomato sauce to use on homemade pizza. And then a recipe in Bon Appetit for butter-roasted tomato sauce sparked an idea. While the BA recipe—and it’s not available online, or I’d link to it—is packed with tons of garlic, anchovies and red pepper flakes (and is delicious on pasta), I wanted only tomato for my pizza sauce. So I borrowed the technique.

If you ordinarily think of pizza sauce as flecked with Italian seasonings, garlic and red pepper, I’ll suggest that you make this bare-bones version first. Then, if you want to add those flavorings, be my guest. But I’ve a hunch that this easy roasted tomato sauce, with its three ingredients, will make a pizza sauce minimalist of you, too.

Find my recipe for homemade pizza dough.

all-purpose roasted tomato sauce recipe

1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small chunks

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Set a colander in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Dump the tomatoes into the colander and use your hands to break them into large chunks (careful: they'll squirt!). Place the tomato pieces and the strained liquid (leaving the seeds behind) in the baking dish. Sprinkle the tomatoes with sugar; scatter the butter over the top. Roast the tomatoes for 30 minutes, stirring once, and check for doneness. The tomatoes should be very soft and the liquid reduced by about half; if not, continue roasting for another 10 to 20 minutes. (Total roasting time depends on how juicy your tomatoes are.) Remove the pan from the oven and use a potato masher to mash the sauce into a coarse puree. If you used canned tomatoes without salt, taste the sauce and add salt if needed.

chocolate cranberry pecan granola recipe | writes4food.com

Chocolate berry pecan granola.

If you’ve been reading here for awhile, you know that I’m a junkie for homemade granola. (See all the related granola recipes below; you’ll get what I mean.) I love the stuff for breakfast with milk or on top of hot oatmeal, for lunch stirred into a cup of nonfat yogurt, or by the handful for a mid-morning snack.

This cold snap has me wanting foods that are comforting and a little more indulgent, so I recently revamped an older recipe for homemade pecan granola—to incorporate a little semisweet chocolate. This chocolate berry pecan granola is pretty much what I’ve been craving.

chocolate berry pecan granola recipe

2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup very coarsely chopped toasted pecans
1/2 cup unsalted sunflower seeds
1/4 cup flaxseed
1/4 cup (lightly packed) brown sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 egg white, beaten with 1 Tbsp. water
2 Tbsp. agave nectar
2 Tbsp. honey
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. almond extract
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chunks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees; line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment. In a large bowl, toss together the oats, pecans, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, brown sugar and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg white and water, agave, honey and extracts. Pour the liquid over the dry ingredients and stir to evenly coat the oat mixture with the liquid. Spread the granola onto the baking sheet and press down. Bake for 15 minutes; stir the granola, then bake 10–12 minutes more, until the granola is golden. Reduce oven temperature to 250 degrees and continue baking for 10–15 minutes, until the granola is dry and deeply golden brown. Remove the pan from the oven; scatter the cranberries and chocolate chunks over the top. Cool, and break into pieces.

easy homemade ricotta gnocchi recipe | writes4food.com

Homemade ricotta gnocchi.

Like many of you, I’m sure, I have a couple of 3-ring binders full of old recipes: magazine clippings, handwritten index cards, recipes copied from long-discarded sources that I retyped on colored paper. Many of these old recipes of indeterminate origins have my scribbled notes:

KILLER!!!
5-star!
GREAT!
light & delicious 1/01
YEAH!
oh God! oh God!

As I’m planning dinners for the week (and, with Rob’s input), I’ll scan a bunch of sources for inspiration: the latest cooking magazines, my tried-and-true everyday cookbooks, the 10-year stash of old Bon Appetit magazines on the basement bookshelves … and my trusty binder. Recently, I spotted an old recipe for ricotta gnocchi that I hadn’t made in forever. I’d drawn four stars on the clipping.

Provided you use a very light hand with the dough, ricotta gnocchi are ridiculously easy (and not at all time-consuming) to make at home. They want only the simplest sauce for serving. I like to toast some chopped walnuts in a dry skillet, then use the same pan to wilt some chopped baby spinach and, finally, to brown 3 or 4 tablespoons of sweet butter — I’ll toss the cooked ricotta gnocchi with this simple sauce and finish the dish with a giant handful of freshly grated Parmesan.

You could skip the spinach and walnuts, and simply add whole sage leaves to the butter as it’s browning. (Oh, and the generous handful of Parm.)

Or, you could gently toss the cooked ricotta gnocchi with this flavorful sauce of warm spices and yellow cherry tomatoes.

Killer!

homemade ricotta gnocchi recipe

(serves 4)

16 ounces whole-milk ricotta (see Note)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups freshly grated Parmesan
1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. kosher salt

(Note: the container of ricotta that I purchased at the grocery contained 15 ounces; I reduced the amount of flour by 1 Tbsp.)

In a large bowl, gently stir together the ricotta and egg; sprinkle the flour, Parmesan, nutmeg and salt over the mixture and use a rubber spatula to fold the ingredients carefully together until they're thoroughly combined (don't overwork the dough). You can make the dough up to 1 day ahead of time to this point and refrigerate it, wrapped in plastic. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and sprinkle it lightly with flour. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and divide it into quarters. Use your hands to gently form one quarter of the dough into a ball, then roll it into a long rope, about 1/2 inch in diameter. Use a small paring knife to cut the rope into 1/2-inch pieces. Roll each piece along the tines of a dinner fork to make the customary ridged shape. Place the gnocchi on the baking sheet as you work. Continue until you've used all the dough. (At this point, you can freeze the gnocchi on the baking sheet, covered with plastic wrap, and then transfer them to a zip-top plastic bag and freeze for up to 3 months.)

To cook the gnocchi, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil; reduce heat to a strong simmer. Cook the gnocchi in 2 batches (so they aren't crowded) until they all float to the surface, about 3–4 minutes. Scoop one little dumpling out and cut it in half to be sure it's cooked through. Remove and drain.

Edit: A friend told me that she had trouble with this recipe and needed to keep adding flour to make the dough come together. The old recipe I referenced includes a footnote that if you’re using fresh ricotta that contains “excessive liquid,” it should be drained in a cheesecloth-lined colander before using. I didn’t run into that problem, so I omitted the note. If your container of ricotta seems a little soupy, go ahead and drain it for a couple of hours in the fridge before making the gnocchi.

10 great football party recipes.

Rob and I are huge football fans, so we don’t typically host a big bash for The Big Game … because, you know, we like to actually watch what happens on the field.

But if you’re entertaining a gathering of folks to feast, catch the halftime extravaganza and dissect the commercials, here’s a list of my favorite football party appetizer and snack recipes. Go, team!