Porch Beer

May 3, 2010

Summer weather has arrived in Chicago with sweltering temperatures and high humidity (for May, at least). The later parts of this week will mercifully drop back down to the 70's. Here's to hoping my office will be able to figure out a method of cooling the building that doesn't make the power go out ten times a day before the next heat wave. 

These are the nights when I love to sit on our porch, watching the neighborhood come alive, hoping for a breeze. A cool drink doesn't hurt either. Here is a recipe for one of my favorites. After an inconclusive internet search, I've decided to call this simple concoction Porch Beer. I've seen this drink labeled a Chelada, but in my experience that name most often refers to a beer and clam juice cocktail. I certainly wouldn't want to confuse the two. Please let me know in the comments if you happen to know a more appropriate name. 

Porch Beer


12 oz. lager beer (I use Tecate)

1 lime

Kosher flake salt

4 large ice cubes


Cut the lime into quarters and run one of the wedges around the rim of a 20 oz pint glass. Pour a tablespoon of salt into a flat dish and coat the glass rim.  Add four large ice cubes to the glass, squeeze in the lime juice, and add the lime quarters. Top with beer.

Candied Nuts

Candied Nuts (1)

Candied nuts are simple, delicious and almost endlessly variable. I used pecans and walnuts, but almonds and cashews also work quite well. I made a sweet and spicy variety using cinnamon and paprika, but you can use whatever spices you have on hand.  Some other flavors that work well are ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cayenne pepper, or even a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce. Once they cool, they will keep well in an air-tight container and make a lovely holiday gift.

Sweet & Spicy Candied Nuts


1/2 C brown sugar
1/2 C white sugar
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp hot smoked paprika
1 tsp ground cinnamon
16 oz pecan and walnut halves
1 egg white
1 Tbl water


Preheat oven to 300F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment or a Silpat mat. In a medium bowl, combine the first five ingredients and mix until evenly distributed. In a second medium bowl, add the egg white and water and beat until slightly frothy. Add the nuts to the egg white and water mixture and toss until the nuts are evenly coated.  Add the sugar mixture and gently mix until evenly coated.  Spread the nuts on the prepared baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove from the oven and cool, breaking apart those that stick together. 

Peanut Butter and Black Sesame Cookies

Peanut Butter Sesame Cookies 1

These pretty little things are like a grown-up version of the typical peanut butter cookie.  The black sesame seeds are not only eye-catching, but they toast in the oven as the cookies bake, providing a nice balance to the sugar. Calling for just five ingredients and baking up in about ten minutes, these are a snap to make.

Peanut Butter Sesame Cookies 3

Peanut Butter and Black Sesame Cookies

Adapted from the March 2009 issue of Gourmet


1 C creamy peanut butter (the cheap kind, not natural)
3/4 C sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp baking soda
5 Tbl black sesame seeds


Preheat the oven to 350F. Cream the peanut butter and sugar together in a medium bowl.  Add the egg and baking soda and mix until combined. Place the sesame seeds in a small dish and prepare a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a Silpat mat.*

Use a teaspoon to measure the cookie batter and roll each portion into a ball using your hands.  Roll the cookie in the sesame seeds to coat the top and place on the baking sheet.  Continue this process with the rest of the dough.  Bake the cookies for ten minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. Bake until the cookies are puffed and cracked, about ten minutes.  Cool and serve.  These cookies will keep for a few days in an airtight container.

(* I managed to fit all of my cookies on one large baking sheet, but it was tight and a few of the cookie edges baked together. You may want to use two baking sheets or bake the cookies in shifts.)

Homemade Gifts

Homemade Gifts 1

Homemade gifts are a nice touch during the holidays.  Last year I started a bit early in the season and made vanilla extract, infused vodkas and peppermint patty candies. But homemade gifts don't need to be time consuming.  Two of my favorite quick projects are lemon and olive oil hand scrub and vanilla coffee syrup.  Not only are the ingredients inexpensive for these two projects, but many of you will likely already have them on hand.

I whipped up a batch of each in less than 20 minutes on Saturday and packaged them in decorative glass jars -- but old jam jars would would work just as well. I like to keep a few of these under the tree to pair with fresh baked cookies for a quick host or hostess gift during the holiday party season.

I'm always on the look-out for new gift ideas.  Feel free to leave other suggestions in the comments.

Savory Parmesan & Thyme Cookies

Parmesan&Thyme 1

Winter arrived in a serious way to Chicago this week. High winds and freezing sleet have created a winter landscape that is alternating between slush and ice, causing few to venture outside without reason. It is officially the season for soups, casseroles and cookies, winter boots, noisy radiators and hot chocolate. While I’m not one to pass up the sweet baked goods that are ubiquitous during this time of year, it’s often the savory ones that I crave. My Uncle Dave recently sent me this recipe for Parmesan and thyme cookies and they turned out to be the perfect weekend baking project. 

Parmesan & Thyme Cookies

Adapted from Ina Garten


1 stick butter, at room temperature
1 c freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp fresh thyme
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 and 1/4 c flour


In a medium bowl cream the butter, Parmesan, thyme, salt and pepper. Add the flour and mix until the dough has a coarse crumb. Turn out on a lightly floured surface and press the dough into a ball. Roll the dough into a 9" log, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes (or up to 4 days).

Preheat the oven to 350F. Cut 3/8" slices from the log of dough and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat mat. Bake for 20 minutes or until just slightly golden brown.

Additional notes:

If you don't have fresh thyme on hand, dry works almost as well. This dough is a bit tricky to roll out because it is slightly dry.  Be sure to continuously compress the dough to keep it solid as you work.  Once, chilled, the dough is very easy to work with.   

Molasses Pumpkin Pie


From the archives.

I don't know about you, but my Thanksgivings don't feel quite complete until I am sinking my teeth into a slice of pumpkin pie.  There are dozens of recipes out there, but this is my favorite.  The molasses gives depth to the creamy, delicately spiced filling, making this a subtle riff on the classic version. 

Pumpkin Pie


1 pie crust, rolled out and chilled in a pie dish
2/3 C brown sugar
1/2 C white sugar
2 Tbl flour
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp each of: allspice, cloves and ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 C canned pumpkin
2 Tbl molasses
1 tsp vanilla
3 large eggs
1 C whipping cream


Place a baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 450F.  Combine sugars, flour, spices and salt in a large bowl.  Add the pumpkin, molasses, vanilla and eggs and incorporate the cream last.

Pour batter into chilled pie crust and bake for ten minutes.

Reduce oven heat to 325F and bake for another 40 to 45 minutes.  The middle should be set and the sides of the pie should puff up a bit.

Allow pie to cool and serve at room temperature or chilled. 

I usually whip any excess cream with a touch of vanilla to serve along with each slice.   This pie can be made up to a day ahead, making it easy for large holiday dinners.

Candy Pumpkins

Candy (1 of 6)

I recently joined fellow Gapers Block food writers at Ras Dashen for a delicious dinner of Ethiopian food. One of the new contributors, Shanna Quinn, mentioned that after reading recipes for homemade candy corn, she experimented with a few to create candy pumpkins. She posted the recipe a few days later and I promptly marked it to try myself.

Candy (3 of 6) Candy (5 of 6) 

Candy making is not my strong point in the kitchen, but I followed Shanna's recipe exactly and it worked out very well. While the final product is a bit softer, the flavor is remarkably true to store-bought. I wound up with quite a bit of extra green dough after dividing it in the quantities the recipe calls for.  This gave me the opportunity to make some green pumpkins and candy snakes. Though, if you want all of your candy to look more traditional, I'd recommend making slightly less green dough.

Tomato and Corn Pie


When the recent issue of Gourmet arrived in my mailbox, I was quite taken with their retro-inspired tomato and corn pie recipe.  This dish truly embodies the bounty of a midwestern summer. Seasonal ingredients topped with sharp Cheddar cheese, fresh herbs and a dollop of mayonnaise make this meal well worth the trouble of baking in August.

I followed the recipe exactly, so I won't post it here, but I suspect that substituting modified quantities of dried herbs would work just fine if you don't have any fresh available. The biscuit crust is quite forgiving, so this recipe is worth a try even if you have lousy luck with other pie crusts. After baking, the bottom crust came out a big soggy, so I would recommend removing some of the juice from your tomatoes before assembling. Serve with a small green salad and a cool glass of vinho verde for a great end-of-summer supper.


Things have been so busy here!  We are finally moving this weekend and I am looking forward to getting my computer back in order, catching up with my photos from Buenos Aires, introducing you to a remarkable bakery in rural Montana, telling you all about my recent Maine lobster binge in Bar Harbor, and sharing details about the excellent dinner I attended last night at Province hosted by the National Honey Board.  It has been a truly memorable summer.

Chicago Careers Through Culinary Arts Competition


This past Saturday I joined students, parents and chefs atCHIC to watch 25 talented high school seniors compete in the 16th annual Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP) Chicago Cooking Competition. This inspiring nonprofit helps public high school students train and compete for scholarships to renowned culinary schools. In addition to Chicago, C-CAP has programs in Arizona, Virginia, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. 

The students were asked to prepare a two-course French meal for a panel of notable judges, including Graham Elliot Bowles of graham elliot, Carrie Nahabedian of Naha, and Mark Mendez of Carnivale.  

You can read my full article at Gapers Block.

Pomegranate Rehydration Drink


This week marks a year since I began running. I've come along way from huffing and puffing to get through a mile and a half.  With support from friends, family and even some of you lovely readers, I participated in the AIDS Marathon training program last summer to run the Chicago Half Marathon. This weekend I am running a 10 mile race that will bring my year total to 570 miles -- And I am signed up to run the full Chicago Marathon this October (don't worry, no fundraising this year).

I'm not one to use fancy sports drinks on a regular basis, but for longer runs they certainly help. Yet, at nearly $2 a bottle for artificial dyes and high fructose corn syrup, the cost is a bit hard to swallow. A few weeks ago, Lifehacker pointed me toward a recipe for rehydration drinks on WebMD and I decided to give it a try as I increased my mileage.  I don't think I will ever go back to the store bought brands again.

Pomegranate Rehydration Drink

(Please note that, according to WebMD, these drinks are only for adults and all ingredients should be measured precisely to prevent adverse effects. In the recipe below I decreased the sugar and water and added fruit juice. Please reference the original recipe and use your own judgement to make your drink.)

.75 quart water
.25 quart Pom Wonderful juice*
.5 tsp baking soda
.5 tsp table salt
.25 tsp salt substitute** 
1 Tbl sugar

Combine all the ingredients in a 1 quart mason jar.  Screw on the lid and shake to combine.  I leave my mason jar of energy drink in the refrigerator and sip on it after my runs throughout the week.

(*The lovely folks at Pom Wonderful sent me some of their juice to try recently. You could use any type of juice here, but I would try to avoid juices with additives and lots of sugar. **Make sure it is potassium-based.  I had to search around a bit, but eventually found a brand called No Salt at my local Whole Foods.)

Carrot Cupcakes with Maple Frosting


When the sweet, late-spring carrots start arriving at your local market, consider these delicious cupcakes. While any old carrot will do, try finding small, fresh bunches with their greens still attached for a flavorful, seasonal treat.  

This recipe was inspired by an older Cook's Illustrated recipe for carrot cake that called for emulsifying the oil with sugar and egg to create a lighter crumb.  This is a brilliant technique that I highly recommend.

Carrot Cupcakes with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

Adapted from Cook's Illustrated.


2.5 C flour
1.25 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1.25 tsp ground cinnamon
0.5 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
0.5 tsp salt
1 lb carrots, peeled and finely shredded
1.5 C sugar
0.5 C packed light brown sugar
4 large eggs
1.5 C vegetable oil
8 oz cream cheese, softened
0.5 C maple syrup


Preheat oven to 350F and line two muffin tins with baking cups.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.

In a food processor, process the sugars and eggs until frothy and thoroughly combined, about 20 seconds. With machine running, add oil through feed tube in a steady stream. Process until mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about 20 seconds longer. Scrape the mixture into a large bowl. Stir in carrots and the dry ingredients until incorporated. 

Pour into the baking cups and bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 18 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking time. Remove the cupcakes from the pans and set aside to cool.

Mix the cream cheese and maple syrup together.  Frost the cupcakes when they reach room temperature.

Makes 24 cupcakes

Apricot Tequila

Tequila1 copy

The Matchbox is one of my favorite Chicago bars. The slight space is aptly named and the drinks are expertly crafted by a no-nonsense staff. Many of their best concoctions use house-infused liquors.  You can't go wrong with their Knob Creek Manhattans garnished with brandy soaked dark cherries or their ginger vodka gimlets.

Over a few years worth of visits, I thought I had effectively covered their offerings. Yet one evening I noticed a jar full of soaking apricots.  My companions and I each ordered a shot of this apricot infused tequila and I instantly fell in love.  While I order the occasional margarita and I enjoy quality tequilas on their own, I never really considered it to be a terribly versatile liquor.

Adding to my list of home infusions, I recently threw together my own bottle to take to a party.  Apricot tequila is excellent on its own; shaken with some ice and strained into a shot glass.  It would also be a great replacement for regular tequila in a variety of cocktails. 

Apricot Infused Tequila


1/2 liter decent tequila (I used Sauza Hornitos, but you could definitely use something cheaper)
10 ounces dried apricots


In a 1 liter glass jar, combine the tequila and the apricots. Let them infuse for about two days.  Give the bottle an occasional swirl.

Simple! This recipe will make about 15 two-ounce shots.  The resulting fruit is delicious, but extremely powerful.  When my tequila was gone, I reserved most of the fruit and stuck it in my freezer.  I plan to blend it with some ice and lime juice this summer for a refreshing cocktail.

Asparagus and Egg Spring Pizza


We really love pizza in our house, but items from the frozen section just won't cut it.  Over the last year Nick has become quite adept at making pizza dough.  His prowess, combined with the peel and baking stone my parents gave me, have us eating delicious homemade pizza at least once a week.  One of our favorite ingredient combinations is asparagus and egg -- perfect for spring.

Asparagus and Egg Pizza
Makes 2 small pizzas


Olive oil
Kosher flake salt
Black pepper
10 asparagus stalks, ends snapped off
3 C shredded mozzarella
4 eggs


Prepare dough according to instructions. Preheat oven to 500F.

Rinse the asparagus and cut in half, so that you have about 20 3-inch pieces. Take each 3-inch piece and cut in half long ways, and then again to quarter.  Heat a tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat and saute the asparagus with black pepper and a generous amount of kosher salt until tender and bright green.  Turn off heat and set aside.

Divide dough into two balls and roll out the first on a lightly floured surface. Sprinkle a baking peel or baking sheet with cornmeal and transfer the dough. Brush the dough with olive oil and sprinkle with Mexican oregano (about a teaspoon). Arrange half the asparagus in a single layer over the dough and cover with one and a half cups of cheese (or the amount you prefer).  Crack two eggs into the center of the pizza. 

Bake for about ten minutes, or until the egg whites are cooked and the pizza is golden brown.  Allow to cool slightly on a cutting board and cut to serve while still warm.  Repeat with remaining ingredients.

Be sure to dip your crust in the egg yolks as you work your way towards the center!

Grape and Almond Salad

Saladgrape copy

After work last week, I met my friend Ellen to catch up over a bottle of wine.  She had prepared a few snacks for us, and this grape, cilantro and almond salad blew me away. Neither of us are big cilantro fans, but the flavors in this salad work so perfectly together that I have a new-found appreciation for the herb. The dish only calls for six ingredients and it can be prepared in a matter of minutes. You can find Ellen's recipe here.   

A well-timed sale on grapes at my local grocery store has encouraged me to make this no less than three times in the last five days.  I'm seriously considering doing the same again tonight.

Spring Favorites


I know Spring won't officially get its start for another two weeks, but the last few days in Chicago have been a sweet reprieve from an arduous winter.  Mild mornings have coaxed me into longer runs as I get serious about training for my upcoming races, and the fresh air and sunlight have me feeling energized for the first time in months -- I really can't recall being so excited for daylight savings.

If you will allow me to waver from the normal thread of this website for a moment, I'd like to share a few things I am presently excited about.

I Hardly Know Her: A smart and simple design for Flickr photos.  You can see mine here.

The Publican:  Nick and I finally dined at this Fulton Market area restaurant and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Homemade Goat Cheese:  Nick has been making goat cheese for us at home with delicious results. A detailed post is in the works.

Quicken Online: I'm trying to get my finances in order and pay off loans and debt.  I've found Quicken Online to be a great, free tool to help me stay organized.  Mint is nice too, but I find that it has a longer lag time updating my accounts.

Baggu Produce Bags:  I'm a big fan of the Baggu grocery bags.  I always have one on me.  I was excited to see that they had added produce bags to their product line and I recently ordered one in both sizes.  I am very pleased with them and now I never need to use plastic at the store.

The Daily Mile:  As I continue with my new found interest in running, the dailymile has become a great resource.  I am able to track my distance, time, pace and upcoming races on their free site.  Please add me if you are a member, it will be a better motivator with friends!

Argentina: I finally cashed in all of my frequent flyer miles and Nick and I are heading to Buenos Aires, Argentina in May.  Needless to say, we are super excited.  We'd love recommendations of what to eat, drink and visit.

Other things that have me smitten: Sarah Haskins, Mad Men dvds, Scraping the Skillet's Dill Bread, and Orangette's new book -- Congratulations Molly!

Lentil Soup


A bowl of lentil soup is unmatched in its simplicity.   If you can boil water and chop an onion, you can make this delicious one pot meal. It can be dressed up with a dollop of sour cream, chopped parsley, and served with crusty bread-- or simply reheated for a hearty work lunch.

I'd like to extend an invitation to my Chicago readers to join me this Wednesday at the Hideout from 5 pm to 8 pm where I will be cooking soup with my fellow Gapers Block contributing food writers and serving it with Columbia College film professor Dan Rybicky and dietician Bettina Tahsin. As part of this Soup and Bread series, all the food will be donated by the cooks and served free of charge.  A hat will be passed for donations to the Greater Chicago Food Depository to help others keep food on their plates.  Come by to say hello, have a beer and eat some soup while helping out those in need.


While there are many excellent recipes and endless modifications one can make to lentil soup, here is my current favorite.  It has a unique earthiness and bite to it thanks to the cumin and black pepper.

Lentil and Sweet Red Pepper Soup with Cumin and Black Pepper
Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook


3 Tbs olive oil
½ C finely chopped red bell pepper
½ tsp whole black peppercorns
¼ tsp cumin seeds
¼ C carrot, finely chopped
¼ C celery, finely chopped
¼ C yellow onion, finely chopped
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1 Turkish bay leaf
1 sprig of Italian parsley, chopped (both
stem and leaves)
1 C lentils, preferably Beluga or French green
4 to 4 ½ C good-quality vegetable stock


In a large saucepan over medium heat, warm 1 Tbs oil. Add the bell pepper and cook, stirring, until it softens, about 5 minutes.

In a mortar, crush the peppercorns and cumin seeds. Add them to the saucepan, and cook the mixture for 1 minute.

Add the remaining oil, carrot, celery, onion, garlic, bay leaf, parsley, and lentils, and 3 C of stock. Stir and
bring it to a simmer. Reduce the heat, and cook the soup uncovered, barely simmering, until the lentils are tender and have absorbed most of the stock, about 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover, and let stand for 5 minutes to allow the lentils to soften.

Using an immersion blender, partially puree the soup, so that about half of the lentils are still whole. Add a bit more broth to bring the soup to your desired texture and season to taste.

Clementine Cake


I've been consuming clementines by the crate over the the last few weeks.  I peel and devour at least ten a day.  If I thought they would keep, I'd pile them to the ceiling to make sure I always had more on hand.

While a bowl full of sweet citrus segments suits me just fine for dessert, I wasn't convinced that my dinner party guests would feel the same this past weekend.  I searched my cookbook collection for a suitable citrus dessert, but only came up with sorbets or panna cottas -- not the wintry final course I was hoping for.  At last my search brought me to Nigella Lawson's Clementine Cake recipe and the rave reviews other cooks had given it.

I don't always enjoy citrus desserts, but when the mid-winter bounty of clementines appears next year, I will definitely be turning back to this easy, flourless, five-ingredient recipe.


Clementine Cake

Adapted from Nigella Lawson


5 clementines, rinsed clean
6 eggs
1 C plus 2 TB sugar
2 1/3 C ground almonds
1 heaping tsp baking powder


Place the clementines in a large pot with enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook for 2 hours. 

When cooked, drain the water and allow the clementines to cool.  Split and remove the seeds and stems.  Throw the skins, pith and fruit into a food processor, and finely chop.  The original recipe isn't clear on whether or not to retain the juices.  I added about 1/3 of the juice to the food processor.

Preheat the oven to 375F

Butter an 8-inch springform pan and line with a circle of parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and then add the sugar, ground almonds and baking powder.  Mix by hand and then incorporate the clementines.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and bake.  Lawson's recipe calls for an hour of baking, but I'd recommend checking it at the 30 or 40 minute mark. The sides of my cake became quite dark.  I was worried that the cake was burning, but it ended up being the citrus and sugar caramelizing.  Nevertheless, I covered the cake with foil after 40 minutes and continued cooking until a tester came out clean from the center.  This took about 15 more minutes. 

Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack before removing the springform sides.  The cake can be made a day ahead. Serve at room temperature dusted with powdered sugar.

Miracle Fruit Dinner Party


Several months ago, my friend Joanna posted about the miracle fruit dinner she hosted on her site, My Vegetable Blog.  While the buzz surrounding this fascinating natural plant had somewhat diminished, my interest in trying it out for myself did not. Miracle fruit contains a protein called Miraculin that binds with the taste buds to create a sweet flavor when it comes in contact with acids. The reaction can last two to three hours.


I decided to buy miracle fruit through an online vendor called Miracle UK. I ordered a pouch containing enough freeze-dried miracle fruit powder for 10 and split it with six friends.  The distribution of this pink powder was rather amusing, but once we had all spooned it into our mouths a silence fell over the table as we waited for it to dissolve.

I reached for a lemon wedge and bit into it, bracing myself for disappointment.  I was met with the flavors of a perfect batch of lemonade. It had worked as advertised.


Our dining selection was certainly one of the strangest I have encountered at a dinner party. We all brought odds and ends, many of which were informed by other miracle fruit party descriptions.  Here is a list of what we had on hand:

Swiss chard
Hot sauces
Hot peppers
Pickled onions
Lemon-herb butter
Cocktail sauce
Goat cheese
Cream cheese
Blue cheese
Sour cream
Fried tofu
Sour Patch Kids
Meyer lemon
Granny Smith apple
Key lime

The most striking item to many of us was the tomatillo. It tasted like a complexly flavored apple.  Absolutely delicious. All of the citrus fruits and fresh vegetables responded well.  The vinegars and tequilas were smooth and the buttermilk tasted like cream. The goat cheese and sour cream tasted like frosting, and the strong blue cheese we had been enjoying before dinner tasted very mellow after eating the miracle fruit.

We all agreed that the Guinness did not taste "like a chocolate milkshake" and in fact, we started to suspect that the spicy foods and the alcohols might have actually sped up the dissipation of the miracle fruit reaction.  Those that had foods from these two groups early on seemed to have a much shorter experience.

I certainly hope miracle fruit never finds its way into my foods as a commercial sweetner, but the dinner party sampling was a lot of fun.

Chocolate Beet Cupcakes with Goat Cheese Frosting


Today marks the fourth year of Pro Bono Baker.  Through a pleasant path of various apartments, relationships, jobs and adventures, I can't think of anything in my adult life that I've stuck with quite as long -- except perhaps college -- and even then I transferred. I've gushed about all the wonderful friends, recipes and stories this site has provided me with on previous birthdays.  This year, I'll leave it at a simple thank you to everyone who visits, both quietly and conversationally.   This wouldn't be nearly as fun without your company.


To celebrate, I made a recipe that I've been mulling over for the past month or two: Chocolate Beet Cupcakes with Goat Cheese Frosting. This treat is seasonal and packed with antioxidants.  Not a bad way to enjoy the new year.

Chocolate Beet Cupcakes


1 C roasted beet puree (about two medium beets)*

.5 C unsalted butter, melted

1 C sugar

.25 C brown sugar

2 eggs

.25 C milk

.75 C flour

.5 C unsweetened cocoa powder

1 tsp baking powder

.25 tsp salt


Preheat oven to 350F

In a large bowl mix together the beet puree, butter, sugars, eggs and milk.  In a medium bowl mix together the remaining ingredients.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and combine until you have a smooth batter.  Fill muffin cups two-thirds full and bake for 25 minutes at 350F, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

*Roasting makes the beets sweeter.  To roast, rinse the beets and cover with foil.  Roast in the oven at 375F for about an hour, or until easily pierced with a fork.  Let cool slightly and chop off the root end.  Rub with your hands to remove the skins.  Roughly chop and puree in a food processor.  It's okay if the puree is slightly chunky.

Makes about 12 cupcakes.  They will stay moist over-night.

Goat Cheese Frosting

Adapted from the gorgeous Harvest Cake at The Kitchn.


5 oz goat cheese, at room temperature

3 oz cream cheese, at room temperature

.5 C powdered sugar

.25 C pure maple syrup


Beat together the cheeses until smooth.  Add the powdered sugar and mix until smooth.  Finally, add the syrup and mix until blended evenly.

Infused Vodka


This post is the second in a series of three on edible handmade gifts.  You can find the first post on homemade vanilla extract here and the third post on homemade peppermint patty candies here.

My friend Harold, who used to guest post on Pro Bono Baker when this site was primarily dedicated to Chicago Bakery Reviews, makes excellent infusions.  He is fervently opposed to the notion that infusions have to sit for weeks on end, and creates most of his in under 30 minutes. 

Harold and I recently shared a warming winter meal at Russian Tea Time here in Chicago where we enjoyed a hearty spread of vareniky, Uzbek stew, and vodka flights.  We selected the coriander, caraway, and horseradish infused vodkas.  The horseradish infusion was so powerful and refreshing, that I decided on the spot that I should make it at home.

On a recent evening, I made three batches of infused vodkas to give as gifts: horseradish, cucumber and ginger.  Infusing your own vodka is simple and quick, and a bottle makes an excellent last minute gift -- you only need an evening and two ingredients.  It is wise to use a vodka that you wouldn't mind drinking without flavor embellishments.  It doesn't have to be fancy though.  I found a good deal on a handle of Stolichnaya to use for my gifts.  I also enjoy using Monopolowa.  I used these Quattro Stagioni 1 liter bottles to make my infusions, but any glass bottle will do. 

Horseradish Infused Vodka


1/2 liter vodka
4 inches horseradish root


Pour half a liter of vodka into your glass bottle.  Using a vegetable peeler, skin the horseradish root.  Quarter the root from top to bottom with a sharp knife.  Now chop the four lengths into half-inch pieces.  Put the horseradish root into the vodka, give it a little shake, and set aside.  Horseradish is pungent.  I only let mine sit for about 3 hours.  It would be wise to check on it frequently in order to achieve your desired strength. Strain the vodka when it is complete.

Cucumber Infused Vodka


1/2 liter vodka
1 small cucumber


Pour half a liter of vodka into your glass bottle.  Rinse the cucumber and chop into quarter inch discs.  Put the cucumber slices into the vodka, give it a gentle shake, and set aside. I let my cucumber vodka infuse over night.  When it has reached your desired strength, strain out the cucumber pieces.

Ginger Infused Vodka


1/2 liter vodka
3 inches ginger root


Pour half a liter of vodka into your glass bottle. Using a spoon, peel the ginger root. Chop into quarter-inch discs.  Put the ginger slices into the vodka, give it a gentle shake, and set aside. I let my ginger vodka infuse over night.  When it has reached your desired strength, strain out the ginger pieces.