Beef and cheddar pasta bake.

So, if you’re looking for recipes that will jump-start your healthy eating habits in the new year … well, this is not that recipe. There’s nothing especially virtuous about this Beef and Cheddar Pasta Bake, dietarily speaking—its virtues are purely sensuous: cheesy, comforting goodness.

If you recall that recurring menu item from your elementary school cafeteria days, you might think of this as a sort of upgraded version of Johnny Marzetti. (A dish that has local-ish roots as the house specialty of Marzetti’s Restaurant in Columbus, OH.) The original version combines sautéed onions and mushrooms with ground beef, tomato sauce and elbow macaroni underneath a broiled mantle of cheddar cheese.

For whatever reason (oh, I dunno … maybe because it’s stupid cold outside), I was craving something cheesy and starchy and gooey like this dish, and I found it in Pierre Franey’s “60 Minute Gourmet” recipe for Macaroni and Beef Casserole on the New York Times Cooking app.

As the late Dick Enberg (to bring in a totally non-contextual sports reference) would say, “Oh, my!”

This recipe, with my adaptations is, I humbly submit, the perfect thing for cold winter nights. It’s easy yet takes just enough time to prepare to make it the ideal thing for Sunday supper. It makes 6 generous servings and reheats well, so leftovers are a bonus. It’s the kind of dish you’d just as well serve to company as eat with a spoon from a bowl in front of the television, in your jammies.

Use a food processor to make the prep even easier, and enlist a kitchen helper to sautée the vegetables and meat while you whisk up the cheddar bechamel. Use very lean ground beef (like ground round) to keep the dish from tasting greasy. Bookmark this recipe for the weekend, OK?

Beef & Cheddar Pasta Bake (AKA upscale Johnny Marzetti) recipe

serves 6

6 oz. dried pasta (like elbows, small shells or 'o's)
1/2 sweet onion
1 stalk celery
1 small red or green bell pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms
1 pound extra-lean ground beef
3/4 cup canned crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons Italian herb seasoning
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
2 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (divided use)
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne
Kosher salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375°. In a food processor, pulse the onion, celery and bell pepper until finely chopped; transfer to a bowl and use the processor to chop the mushrooms in similar fashion.

Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil and add pasta; cook according to package directions, then drain and keep warm.

In an ovenproof skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers; reduce heat to medium and add chopped onion, celery and bell pepper. Season with a generous pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until they're soft, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and another pinch of salt and cook until the mushrooms are soft and release their juices, about 5 minutes more. Use your fingers to break ground beef into pieces and scatter over the vegetables; cook, stirring to break up the meat, until it is no longer pink about 7 minutes. Raise heat and bring the mixture to a boil; cook until liquid is evaporated. Stir in tomatoes and Italian herbs; season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat; whisk in flour. Cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture smells like buttered toast, about 3 minutes. Gradually add about 1/2 cup of milk, whisking constantly. Mixture will get thick and pasty; keep gradually whisking in milk a little at a time until smooth. Cook the sauce at a near-boil until it thickens, about 5 minutes. Whisk in 2 cups of cheese, the nutmeg and cayenne; season well with salt. Stir until smooth.

Add pasta to the skillet and stir to combine with the beef and vegetables. Pour the cheese sauce over all and stir gently to blend. Scatter remaining cheese over the top. Bake 20–25 minutes, until cheese is browned and casserole is bubbly.

Christmas cookie palooza: Orange butter cookies, two ways.

Do you love chocolate and orange together? Know those “whack and unwrap” chocolate oranges that are so fun to get in your Christmas stocking?

That’s the inspiration behind this recipe for Orange Butter Cookies, Two Ways.

Way No. 1 is the straight-up version of a recipe I found in my Grandma Dorothy’s “Kitchen Klips” file of vintage recipes. The original, clipped from a package of Land ‘o Lakes butter, calls for lemon flavoring. But I love orange at this time of year: Oranges are in season now, and I associate orange with Christmas thanks, in part, to Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” Capote writes of opening gifts with his extended and distant family on Christmas morning: “My friend has a better haul. A sack of Satsumas, that’s her best present.”

Traveling in South Carolina recently, Rob and I found a sack of Satsumas at a farmers’ market, the juice and peel of which went into my Orange Butter Cookies.

And then it hit me, this chocolate-and-orange idea: What if I added chocolate kisses to these orange butter cookies, a la Peanut Butter Blossoms?

Blammo (as Rob would say).

So here you go: The last installment of 2017’s edition of Christmas Cooke Palooza: Grandma’s Frosted Lemon Cookie recipe reimagined with orange flavoring and chocolate. Make ’em either way!

And happy holidays to you!

orange Kiss cookies and Glazed Orange Cookies

makes about 5 dozen

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon orange extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

For finishing: unwrapped Hershey's chocolate kisses
For the glaze: 1 cup powdered sugar whisked with 2–3 tablespoons orange juice, orange sparkling sugar

Preheat oven to 400°; line two baking sheets with parchment paper. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer), combine the sugar and orange zest; use your fingers to work the mixture until it is damp and fragrant. Add butter, and cream together butter and sugar for about 3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time and stir to combine then stir in orange juice and zest. Add flour, cream of tartar, baking powder and salt and stir to combine thoroughly. Use a small cookie scoop or two teaspoons to portion out roughly 1-inch balls of dough onto the baking sheets. Bake until just barely beginning to brown on the edges, about 10 minutes, rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking time.

For Orange Kiss Cookies: Place a Hershey's kiss in the center of each cookie; return to the oven for 1 minute to soften the chocolate.

For Glazed Orange Cookies: Spread a bit of glaze over each cookie while still warm and immediately sprinkle with orange sugar.

 

Christmas cookie palooza: 7 layer bars.

Quick note from the editor: Now through midnight December 31, comment on any of the 2017 Christmas Cookie Palooza recipes to let me know which one is your favorite — and in so doing, you’ll be entered in my drawing to win a copy of The Findlay Market Cookbook! Enter as often as you’d like; one winner will be randomly selected from all entries. Love to you!

In this holiday season, can we share a bit of honesty, friends? Let’s acknowledge that Seven Layer Bar Cookies are not, in fact, cookies. They’re more like candy bars. Which is totally fine, of course. Calling them by their true name recognizes their utter decadence, their chocolatey, butterscotchy deliciousness.

Here’s another recipe in The Dorothy Project: my Grandma Dorothy’s recipe for Seven Layer Bars. It’s likely the same as your grandma’s recipe for Seven Layer Bars. These delicious little squares were ubiquitous on the buffet table at Christmastime when I was a kid. Everyone loves them.

[Here’s a confession: I hatehatehate coconut. Hate. It. So I skipped the coconut when I made the recipe for the photograph here. But if coconut is how you roll, then by all means.]

Funny thing about Grandma’s recipe: As you can see from her handwritten old recipe card in the photo, it calls for a package each of butterscotch chips and chocolate chips. Which, my dears, is soooooooo many chips. A quick online search told me that the proper amount of chips is 1 cup of each. Packages of baking chips back when Grandma copied down this recipe must have been half as big as they are today.

So, here you go. Grab some butterscotch chips (you probably have semisweet on hand already) and a can of sweetened condensed milk and go to town. Make these traditional Christmas bar cookies … erm, candy bars.

seven layer bar cookies

makes about 48 small squares

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 cup moist coconut
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk.

Line a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish or quarter sheet pan with parchment paper; spray sides of pan with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 350°. Pour the melted butter in the bottom of the pan and tilt to spread it evenly. Layer ingredients in order given, then pour the sweetened condensed milk evenly over the top. Bake until deeply golden brown and set, about 25 minutes. Run a thin spatula around the perimeter of the pan to loosen the bars while they're warm, then let cool. Use the parchment paper to lift the whole thing out of the pan, then cut into small squares.

Christmas cookie palooza: Salty Marcona almond cookies.

On the heels of last week’s Hazelnut Raspberry Jam Thumbprint Cookies, here’s another simple, buttery cookie that’s perfect for the holidays. I discovered this typed recipe for Almond Cookies in my grandma’s old Kitchen Klips vintage recipe collection; it came from a friend of hers named Rita Crear, who lived in southern Indiana near Evansville.

Whenever you encounter old family recipes or vintage cookbooks, you invariably find something head-scratching; in this case, it was that the recipe calls for 3 tablespoons of almond flavoring. Three tablespoons! Note, though, the word ‘flavoring.’ Not ‘extract.’ I adjusted my measuring to account for the fact that I’m using high-quality pure almond extract, and backed it down to 1 tablespoon. They’re plenty almond-y (though you could certainly add another teaspoon if you want bold almond flavor). I also substituted salted Marcona almonds for the plain blanched ones on top of the cookies — I love the salty, toasty kick.

I also discovered, regrettably, that the baking time called for was woefully overlong (I nearly burned the first batch). No, these don’t need to bake for 20 minutes; 12 will do nicely.

Grab a fresh bottle of almond extract and get that butter softening on the counter!

salty Marcona almond cookies

makes about 5 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg + 1 egg yolk (divided use)
1 Tbsp. pure almond extract (more if desired)
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 Tbsp. milk
Salted Marcona almonds for finishing

Preheat oven to 375°; line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer), cream the butter until soft; add sugar and cream until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in the egg, then almond extract. Slowly blend in flour, baking soda, and salt. Stir in corn syrup. In a small bowl, whisk together egg yolk and milk. Spoon teaspoons of dough onto cookie sheets, about 2 inches apart; gently form the dough into rounds, then flatten the tops slightly. Brush each with egg wash, then top with a Marcona almond. Bake until barely golden brown, about 12 minutes, rotating cookie sheets once halfway through baking time. Cool on a wire rack.

raspberry hazelnut thumbprint cookie recipe | writes4food.com

Christmas cookie-palooza: Hazelnut jam thumbprints.

As far as Christmas cookies go, I love a basic butter cookie: they’re easy to make, crowd-pleasing and have that Old World sensibility that feels somehow appropriate during the holidays.

Simple butter cookie dough is really versatile: You can run it through a cookie press to make Spritz cookies, or roll it out and cut out shapes. In fact, this easy sugar cookie recipe is really a variant on the butter cookie.

If you don’t want to fuss with a cookie press (one of the best kitchen gadgets ever, in my humble opinion), or to roll and cut out shapes, then the easy out is to roll the dough into balls, coat the balls in chopped nuts, press an indentation with your thumb and fill that with jam. Hence: Hazelnut Jam Thumbprint Cookies. Here you go!

raspberry hazelnut thumbprint cookie recipe

makes 4 dozen

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg + 1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam
1/2 cup chopped toasted hazelnuts (or almonds or pecans, or any of the above)

Preheat oven to 350°; line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer), cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. Blend in egg and egg yolk, then stir in vanilla. Stir in flour and salt to blend completely. Scoop teaspoonfuls of dough and roll into balls. Roll each ball in chopped nuts to coat, arrange on baking sheets. Press your thumb deeply in the center of each ball; fill indentations with jam (use two espresso spoons to make this easy). Bake until pale golden, about 12 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking. Cool cookies slightly on baking sheets, then transfer to a wire rack.

Christmas Cookie Palooza 2017

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t going to bother making a ton of cookies during the holiday season. We’ve been away, I have a full workload … and combined with my natural tendency to feel busier than I am, I was going to cut myself some slack and lay off the cookies this year.

Until.

Until I was demonstrating one of my favorite recipes from The Findlay Market Cookbook during last weekend’s Holiday Market — a gorgeous lentil salad with a lovely spiced vinaigrette (thanks, Joanne!) — when the most delightful woman came up to me and told me how much she enjoys this website and especially looks forward to the Christmas cookie recipes.

So, there you have it. Christmas cookies, it is.

I’ll start this week by sharing an old favorite of mine (stay tuned on Friday). And then we’ll make this the Dorothy Project edition of Christmas Cookie Palooza: I’ll share three recipes from my grandmother’s vintage recipe collection.

And, if you follow along, I’ll have a special treat for you: I will collect all the comments on all the cookie recipe posts between now and December 24 and randomly draw a winner who will receive a FREE copy of The Findlay Market Cookbook. Sweets and SWEET!

MWAH!

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Awesome appetizers for your Thanksgiving feast.

If you stop and think about it, it’s kind of absurd to even consider appetizers before Thanksgiving dinner. But let’s not stop and think about it, shall we?

Because all the while the turkey’s in the oven roasting, it’s emanating the most delicious smells from the kitchen. Tummies will invariably rumble. Dinner will invariably happen a little later than the hosts imagined. Conversations will invariably veer in strange directions as family members and guests imbibe.

So, yeah: appetizers are a good thing.

But they should be two things: 1) easy to make (or for guests to bring along) and 2) fairly light. Just little nibbles to keep the edge off the hungries until everyone sits down to the main event. Amiright?

Here are a few great Thanksgiving appetizer recipes that meet those two criteria. Even better: they’re all easily made ahead. Give one or several a try this year:

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Fabulous Thanksgiving side dishes.

So, Thanksgiving will be a bit unconventional for us this year, as Rob and I are taking off for the beach in South Carolina, leaving our loving family in Indiana wondering what the hell is wrong with us. Many years ago, we had the opportunity to enjoy a couple of holidays in an island setting, and the idea kept tugging and tugging at us until we simply had to do it again. So, it’ll be coffee on the beach and shrimp and grits for us on Thanksgiving day.

Regardless of our plans, I know you have yours — and that they’ll probably involve a table full of wonderful, traditional Thanksgiving dishes. I wanted to share a few Thanksgiving sides, salads and breads to inspire you as you’re assembling your menu this year. Enjoy!

Overnight Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake recipe | writes4food.com

The Dorothy Project: Overnight coffee cake.

Two things strike me about this recipe that I found in my grandma Dorothy’s old recipe file: one, the beautiful penmanship, and two, this line: “Can be made 2 days before, providing you have good refrigeration.”

Good refrigeration.

This Overnight Coffee Cake recipe was signed by its creator, Alma Worthington. Alma was the much-beloved cook and kitchen mistress at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, where Dorothy worked and worshiped for many years. I remember Alma as a kind and dignified woman, thoroughly in charge of her kitchen and generous with her food. Alma and her cooks catered the various church luncheons that I attended with Grandma, and her recipe for Hot Chicken Salad remains one of my family’s favorite comfort dishes. (I’ll have to share it here.)

This simple coffee cake recipe is one you’ll want to have in your back pocket for the holidays: You can make the batter and topping a day ahead and pop it in the oven the morning you want to serve it, so your houseguests wake up to the enticing scent of warm cinnamon. It would be stellar on Christmas or New Year’s Day morning.

Raising a cup of coffee in toast to Alma. And to good refrigeration.

Overnight coffee cake recipe

serves 12

3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

For the topping:
3/4 cup (lightly packed) brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Spray a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer), cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 2–3 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, mixing to combine. Mix in sour cream. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon; add to butter mixture and stir to combine. Batter will be thick. Spread batter in prepared pan. In a bowl, mix together topping ingredients; sprinkle evenly over batter. Cover with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate overnight or up to 2 days. Before baking, preheat oven to 350°. Bake 30–35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out with just a couple of moist crumbs attached.

Arizona Mountain Soup recipe | writes4food.com

The Dorothy Project: Arizona Mountain Soup.

About a year ago, I requested this recipe from my mom, who made this hearty soup regularly when I was a kid. And when I found the very same newspaper clipping in my grandmother Dorothy’s “Kitchen Klips” file of old recipes, I knew I had to share it here.

The name itself intrigues: Arizona Mountain Soup. According to “Easy on the Cook,” a long-ago column in the Indianapolis Star (byline: Clementine Paddleford) that Dorothy scissored out of the paper, the soup is attributed to a woman named “Bennie” Bennett, a sign-painter living in the mountains near Yarnell, AZ. (I’m guessing this recipe dates to the early 1970s.) Bennie, a woman on a budget, experimented in her kitchen to come up with this simple combo of rice, beans and vegetables. In the story accompanying the recipe, Bennie advises serving Arizona Mountain Soup with “oven-hot corn bread.” You’d do well to follow her lead.

Now that the weather’s turned (hello, 32°!), this soup is just right. Like all soups known to humankind, this one’s better a day or two after it’s made. (It freezes well, too.) I’ve enjoyed leftovers for lunch these past few days, and had highly productive afternoons as a result.

Good-quality dried beans that you cook yourself (I’m looking at you, Rancho Gordo) are ideal in this soup; with so few ingredients in this recipe, it’s worth using good ones.

Arizona Mountain Soup

Serves 6

6 slices bacon, chopped
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 can diced tomatoes with their juices
3 cups cooked beans (white, pinto or other; see Note)
1 1/2 cups cooked rice (white, brown or a wild rice blend)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
4 cups vegetable broth or water (or 2 cups of each)
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium heat; sauté bacon until crisp but not too brown. Remove to a plate and drain off all but 2 tablespoons drippings. Add onion and a pinch of salt to the drippings and sauté until soft and translucent, stirring frequently, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add tomatoes and their juices and bring to a boil. Add beans, rice, salt, paprika and pepper, then stir in 3 cups vegetable broth/water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer soup for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding remaining 1 cup broth/water if needed. Return about half the bacon to the soup. Ladle into bowls and top with remaining bacon. Soup will thicken as it sits; add water or broth to thin as needed.

Note: Cook 1/2 pound of good quality dried beans to use in this recipe; if you're short on time, use low-sodium canned beans and rinse them well.