banana tarte tatin

banana tarte tatin // milly's kitchen

We go through a lot of bananas around here. Especially in the winter months when more tender fruit and vegetables aren’t available. Along with kale, cabbage and root vegetables, it’s one of the hard-working staples we rely on year-round. However, unlike kale and its stalwart kitchen companions, which we transform each week into soups, salads, braises and roasts, we never do anything exciting with bananas. And considering the enormous mountain of them that appears on our kitchen table each week, the peel-and-eat situation was getting a bit monotonous.

Everything about this winter was starting to feel monotonous, in fact. Seattle, lush and verdant in the summer months, is all grey and drizzle for much of the fall and winter. Some people are immune to this seemingly endless series of overcast days. I am not one of them. And winter was starting to wear on me. 

banana tarte tatin // milly's kitchen

Thumbing my way through Instagram with its scenes of New York and Detroit and even Raleigh and Chatanooga under a snowy winter blanket, filled me with nostalgia for snow days and hot cocoa and snowball fights. (I suspect those of you digging out from under huge drifts and mending frozen pipes might have less romantic notions of this year’s winter storms.)

Thus afflicted by the winter doldrums and feeling more than a little bit sorry for myself, I was casting around the kitchen for culinary inspiration when my eyes fell on that pile of steadily ripening bananas. A recipe for a banana tarte tatin I’d seen ages ago flickered in the distant recesses of my mind. And just like that, that heap of boring bananas was full of delicious, caramelized potential.

banana tarte tatin // milly's kitchen

If you haven’t had a tarte tatin, it’s a beauty of a dessert: tender caramelized apples above layers of flaky, buttery puff pastry. Elegantly French, yet homey and familiar. No one in their right mind can object to a good tarte tatin. Substituting bananas for the apples would lend some of the irresistible charm of Bananas Foster and provide the humble banana an edge of sophistication. 

After tinkering with the recipe, I invited some friends over for dinner to act as my unwitting guinea pigs. Halfway through dessert, it struck me what folly it was to invite an incredibly talented pastry chef over to sample an untested dessert! Realizing this too late to course-correct, I fretted internally and carried on. 

banana tarte tatin // milly's kitchen

We tasted the tart with all sorts of toppings and decided in the end that less is more. It certainly wouldn’t be bad with, say, coffee-infused whip cream or cacao nibs or candied hazelnuts. But in order to let the nuances of the caramel and the floral notes of the bananas shine through, it was best with just a straightforward scoop of ice cream (I like vanilla or coffee), or simpler still, a dollop of tart crème fraîche. Whether you choose a minimalist approach or something more baroque, this banana tarte tatin is certainly a winner in the winter dessert department. 

While eating a leftover slice of tart for breakfast (don’t judge), I started thinking about the transformation of a lackluster winter staple into a delicious dessert. How if you can coax yourself into seeing things from a slightly different point of view, fresh possibilities open up. On a walk later that day, it occurred to me that this lesson applied outside the kitchen as well. That caramelly tart reminded that there is inspiration in the everyday if you take the time to look for it. 

As I walked, I decided to stop mentally complaining about the monotonous Seattle winter and focus instead on the little signs of spring that are starting to emerge. Tiny, tender buds on branch tips. Crocus and daffodils gently unfurling. The first flushed breast of a robin. How the air smells a bit different: loamy and rich with the faint perfume of cherry blossoms here and there. How the afternoon sunlight, growing by a few minutes each day, seems more golden and bright. 

spring blossoms // milly's kitchen
spring blossoms // milly's kitchen

Grey days can still cast a pall over my mood if I’m not mindful. I wish I could say I now bound out of bed each morning singing show tunes! Alas, I do not. But I have decided to focus on the many good things each day holds, especially until spring is fully settled in and the sun returns. More walks. More laughs. More time in the garden. More cooking for no other reason than because it makes me happy. 

It turns out bananas and winter days, when seen with a fresh eye, are full of delicious potential.

banana tarte tatin // milly's kitchen

Banana Tarte Tatin

3 tablespoons butter
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons cream
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons dark rum
5 bananas, halved lengthwise (ripe, but still firm)
1 sheet puff pastry, preferably all-butter, thawed if frozen 
Ice cream or crème fraîche, to serve
Flaky sea salt, to serve (I like Maldon)

Preheat the oven to 400° F. 

In a medium saucepan melt the butter over medium heat. Add the sugar and salt. Cook, whisking occasionally until the sugar has melted and turned medium-amber, about 6-7 minutes. Cook the caramel a shade or two less that your desired final result as it will continue to caramelize in the oven. Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk in the cream, then the lemon juice and rum. Use caution as the caramel is extremely hot and will bubble up when you add the liquid ingredients. Don’t worry if it seizes a bit, just keep whisking until it’s smooth again. Very carefully transfer the hot caramel to your baking dish. Working quickly, spread the caramel with a spoon or flexible spatula to the corners of the dish before it hardens.

banana tarte tatin // milly's kitchen

Roll out the puff pastry on a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 3/16-inch. Using a sharp knife, trace a rectangle ½-inch larger than the bottom of your baking dish. Arrange the bananas, cut-side-down over the caramel, trimming them as necessary to make them fit. Carefully lay the the trimmed puff pastry over the bananas, tucking the excess dough between the bananas and the side of the dish. Bake until the puff pastry has risen and is golden brown, about 30 minutes. 

Remove the tarte tatin from the oven and let it rest for a couple of minutes. Run a butter knife around the sides of the baking dish to loosen any puff pastry or caramel that may have stuck. If there is caramel pooling in the bottom of the dish, carefully pour it off. But do not throw it away--it is DELICIOUS. Place a large platter or rimmed sheet pan over the baking dish. Grasp the baking dish and platter or sheet pan firmly with oven mitts or kitchen towels and invert them quickly. (They key is to flip quickly without hesitating.) Remove the baking dish. 

Serve the tarte tatin warm or at room temperature, with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of crème fraîche and lightly sprinkled with sea salt. If you poured off any caramel from the bottom of the dish, that’s delicious spooned over the top or reserved for a killer ice cream sundae.

Makes 6 servings

banana tarte tatin // milly's kitchen

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup to cure what ails you

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen

A couple Saturdays ago, I found myself on the couch, curled up with my cat, Loulou, reading cookbooks. The sky had been sheathed in grey for days and I was fending off a beast of a headcold. Beau had packed himself off to the movies.

While paging through the stellar My Portugal by George Mendes, we happened upon a recipe for chicken soup. Juicy shreds of chicken floating in a beautiful golden broth, enriched with orzo and flecked with parsley, mint, dill and chives. Inspired by that gorgeous bowl of soup, I decided it was a chicken soup sort of day and that Loulou and I would be devoting our afternoon to cooking a pot of that time-tested cure-all. 

Too sluggish to head into uncharted territory, I closed My Portugal and gathered the ingredients for my own chicken soup.

This simple soup changes with the seasons, agreeably accepting whatever’s fresh at the market. Asparagus and English peas in the spring. Snap beans and herb pesto in the summer. Hearty greens in the fall and winter months.

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen

I am horribly (superstitiously, irrationally) averse to any sort of soggy starch in my soup, which means I often stick to hearty grains like farro and barley. If a starch is prone to mushiness, I cook it separately and stir it into bowls of steaming soup just before serving.

While rooting around in the pantry for a sturdy starch to add along with the beet tops I found in the fridge, I remembered that my great grandma Phoebe made chicken soup with fat, homemade egg noodles that were impervious to bloat and sog. And that I had inherited her dog-eared kitchen handbook, The American Woman’s Cookbook, published in 1946, and a thick bundle of her handwritten recipes. 

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen

Unlike Milly, Phoebe was neither sweet nor grandmotherly. She had an eagle eye for dirty fingernails and improperly tamed curls, and never failed to call these (and other) oversights to one’s attention. She started her family in 1930s Chicago, the young wife of an irascible and alcoholic mechanic. I always felt that this experience, living through the crucible of the Depression, shaped her into the guarded, frugal, God-fearing woman I knew as a child. I think because she couldn’t express her love very easily with words, she loved us through food. She was a fine cook and whenever I visited, she proferred iced oatmeal cookies, quivering bowls of ambrosia salad, dense slices of walnut-studded banana bread, and rich meatloaves bound with saltines and capped with a thick glaze of Heinz ketchup.

And sometimes, at family luncheons, there was her chicken soup. Carrot. Onion. Celery. Stock. Chicken. And thick, homemade noodles. Nothing more.

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen
old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen

I don’t think I appreciated how good that soup was until I got older and discovered the many bland and marshy permutations of chicken noodle soup. Canned versions wanting for chunks of tender chicken and substituting salt for true flavor. Cafeteria versions with limp noodles floating sadly in a mysteriously gelatinous broth. Dehydrated instant versions, thin as tap water. Grandma Phoebe’s soup was none of these, thanks largely to the toothsome, hand-rolled noodles she made for it.

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen

So I dug out her cookbook and recipes and sorted through the yellowing scraps of paper filled with her precise cursive. Applesauce Upside-Down Cake. Baked Ham. Bible verses. Tea Biscuits. Her famous Banana Nut Bread. A calendar page from 1959 indicating her work schedule at the Bloomingdale’s glove counter. Two different recipes for something called Paradise Salad, fashioned with both mayonnaise and Cool Whip. And two slips of paper with “Noodles” penned simply across the top. 

As I sifted through the recipes, deciphering her notes to herself (“This cake is VERY good!”, “Aunt Eva’s fudge”, “Cheri loves this one...”), I realized how precious these slips of paper housed in an old ziploc bag are to me. How they are a sort of culinary family tree, with notes on who liked what and which recipe had been handed down by whom. They allow me to make Aunt Eileen’s Peanut Butter Crunch or my Grandma Milly’s pie crust or Phoebe’s black walnut cake. And through the mixing and the folding and the baking, know them a tiny bit more. 

As I stirred and kneaded and rolled Phoebe’s noodles, I thought of her and her life. And the ways I did and did not know her. I added those golden noodles to my own chicken soup and as I sat down to eat a bowl, I felt myself quietly on the mend. 


old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen

Old-Fashioned Egg Noodles

I like to roll these noodles out by hand like my great grandma did, but you can use a pasta machine if you like. Just don’t get them too thin; the goal is to have a toothsome, sturdy noodle when you’re done.

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for kneading and rolling
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons melted and slightly cooled chicken fat, lard or butter (or neutral-tasting cooking oil)
½ cup whole milk

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen


Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. You can continue to mix the dough in the bowl or transfer the flour mixture to the center of a large work surface. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture and crack the eggs into the well. Pour the liquid fat into the eggs.

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen

Using a fork, beat the eggs and fat together. Incorporate the flour mixture by gradually grabbing it from the inner rim of the well. When the flour is incorporated, use a bench scraper to gather the dough into a ball. Transfer it to a clean, well-floured work surface. Knead the dough, incorporating more flour as necessary until it is no longer sticky. Continue to knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. The kneading should take about 10 minutes total. Generously flour the ball of dough, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and set it aside to rest for at least 30 minutes.

When you’re ready to roll out the noodles, divide the dough into six pieces. Work with only one piece at a time and keep the others tightly covered so they don’t dry out. Lightly flour your work surface and stretch the dough into a roughly 6x4 inch rectangle with the short side closest to you. Fold it in thirds like an envelope and roll it out to a rectangle again. This helps strengthen the dough so it doesn’t rip when you roll it out. You can rotate the dough 90 degrees and repeat this process if it still feels tacky.

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen

Roll the dough into a large rectangle about ⅛-inch thick. Use a knife or pizza cutter to slice the dough into noodles about ⅓-inch wide. You can cook the noodles immediately or hang them to dry (I use a repurposed laundry rack). When dried completely, they will store indefinitely in an air-tight container (I use a mason jar).
 
Even though the noodles will remain sturdy when added to soup, I cook them separately in salted water so the excess flour that sticks to them won’t make my soup cloudy.

Makes about 1 lb dried noodles

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen

Chicken Noodle Soup

2 tablespoons chicken fat or vegetable oil
2 medium leeks, halved lengthwise and sliced into thin half-moons
4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
2 stalks celery, sliced into thin half-moons
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme 
2 bay leaves
Kosher or sea salt
8 cups best quality chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 lb chicken breast or thighs
1 bunch hearty greens such as kale, Swiss chard or beet tops, stems removed and torn into large pieces
About 4 cups cooked egg noodles


Heat the fat in a heavy-bottomed stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the leek, carrot, celery, thyme and bay. Season with a pinch of salt and cook until the vegetables have softened, but not browned, about 8 minutes.

Add the stock, bring the soup to a simmer, then add the chicken. Simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is just cooked through, 15-20 minutes. You can check to see if the chicken is done by removing it and cutting into it with a paring knife. If using breast meat, take extra care not to overcook it as it gets dry and stringy. You want it to be completely opaque, without any traces of pink but still juicy. When it is cooked through, remove the chicken from the pot and set it aside to cool. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, cut it into ½-inch cubes. Use your fingers to shred the cubed chicken if you like. 

Add the greens to the soup and cook until tender. Add the noodles and the chicken and simmer until heated through and the flavors have come together, a few minutes longer. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Remove the bay leaves and serve.

Makes 6-8 servings

old-fashioned egg noodles + chicken soup // milly's kitchen

posole verde

Posole Verde // Milly's Kitchen

I am not really a believer in New Year’s resolutions. They always seem to putter out somewhere around March. I prefer to secret away an afternoon in the quiet, darkening days of January to imagine what I want from the year. I prefer to head out into the new year with a roadmap and an intention. Though I don’t always end up at my original destination, things always seem to fall into place somehow.

This year, I find myself thinking about how to clear away the extraneous, the white noise. Too much television. Worrying about what other people think. Falling down the Internet’s many rabbit holes. Sweeping away the distractions helps reveal the essential. Family. Friendship. Creativity. Beauty. Nature. Those things that sustain me.

The idea of sustenance has been on my mind a lot lately. Busy-ness has a way of taking over, like a creeping vine, if you forget to prune it back. So as I plan out each week, I schedule in time to write and take photos and go for walks, activities that sustain my spirit and keep the busy-ness in check. 

Posole Verde // Milly's Kitchen

In the kitchen too, I’ve been thinking about sustenance. As someone who earns her livelihood through food, it’s not always easy to navigate the territory between flavor and health. I learned to cook in restaurant kitchens, where butter and cream and sugar and salt are the go-to shortcuts to flavor. And let’s be honest--butter, cream, sugar and salt are glorious in the kitchen, adding roundness and coaxing forth layers of deliciousness from other, more subtle, ingredients. I am most certainly not among those who vilify fat or carbohydrates or any food at all for that matter. 

But I do know that too much of a good thing can be, well, too much. I just returned from a trip to San Francisco with my mother. We did all the fun, mother-daughter things one should do on a trip to San Francisco. We rode a ferry to Alcatraz Island and snapped pictures of the Bay Bridge and the city skyline with the sun glinting off the water. We explored Golden Gate Park and spent an afternoon entranced by the underwater dreamscape at the California Academy of Sciences aquarium. We wandered the streets of the city and stumbled upon lovely handmade jewelry and gorgeous earth-toned ceramics and a hidden trove of vintage kitchen wares.

Posole Verde // Milly's Kitchen
Underwater Dreamscape // Milly's Kitchen
Bay Bridge // Milly's Kitchen

And we ate.

We waited in the ever-present line at Tartine for flaky croissants and light-as-air meringues. We ate tacos from a bodega in the Mission. We had some of the best pasta I’ve ever had--housemade ditalini with dungeness crab and uni butter--at Locanda. We brunched on lentil fritters with a silky beet sauce, kefir and cilantro oil at Bar Tartine. At Range, my favorite restaurant in the Bay Area, I had crisp-skinned roasted chicken with a bread salad of chicory, dates, bacon and fresh herbs. We finished the trip at 20th Century Cafe (a gem of a place) with golden pierogi served with damson plum preserves, lighter-than-air apple strudel and a slice of Russian honey cake. Each meal was a treasure.

20th Century Cafe Russian Honey Cake // Milly's Kitchen


I wouldn’t change a thing about our trip. But when I got home, I was decidedly done with buttery pastries and creamy sauces. I craved fresher, lighter meals. Greens and whole grains and brothy soups. The sort of food that leaves you ready to dive into your day rather than in a food coma and in need of a nap. 

This posole verde is one of the recipes I turn to at times like this. I first made this soup last summer with tomatillos from the farmers market. But I was craving it this winter and discovered that it works beautifully with canned tomatillos as well. 

In addition to the tart tomatillos, this posole has earthy hominy to give it body and texture. There are jalapeños to liven things up and cooling cilantro to balance the kick of the chiles. The chicken makes this soup a filling meal, but pintos or black beans would work just as well if you prefer to keep it vegetarian. And of course, you can’t leave off the toppings. For me, posole is all about the bright, crunchy toppings added to each bowl just before serving.

Posole Verde // Milly's Kitchen

This posole brings a little summer warmth to January days and is just the kind of sustenance I’m looking for as I head towards spring with a roadmap for a fresh, new year in hand. 

 

P.S. I'm always looking for inspiration, so I'd love to hear about your go-to fresh, healthy meals in the comments below! 


Posole Verde (Tomatillo, Hominy and Chicken Soup)

I’m generally not a champion of the boneless, skinless chicken breast. Mostly because it isn’t as flavorful as other cuts of chicken and it’s more difficult to cook properly. But I like the delicate chicken flavor it brings to this light, fresh soup. The handling of the chicken is a bit fussier here due to the fact that breast meat is leaner and will get dry and tough it is not cooked gently. Feel free to substitute skinless chicken thighs, pork loin or tenderloin or even braised pork shoulder in place of the chicken breasts if you prefer.

Posole Verde // Milly's Kitchen

For soup:
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 lb fresh tomatillos, diced or 1 28-oz can tomatillos, drained
3 cloves garlic
1 jalapeño (seeds optional), quartered
Packed ⅓ cup cilantro (some stems are fine)
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (preferably homemade), divided
1 bay leaf
4 cups cooked hominy (you can cook your own or use 1 28-oz. can)
2 large skinless chicken breasts (about 1 ¾ lbs)

Garnishes:
1 large avocado, thinly sliced
1 lime cut into wedges
8-10 radishes, very thinly sliced
2 green onions, thinly sliced
1 ½ cups very finely shredded red or green cabbage
½ cup crema, sour cream or cotija cheese


Heat 1 cup of the stock in a medium saucepan. If you are using fresh tomatillos, add them to the pot along with the onion. If not, add only the onion. Simmer until the onion is tender, about 10 minutes.  Set aside to cool slightly.

Working in batches, puree the onion and tomatillo (along with the cooking liquid), garlic, jalapeño and cilantro in a blender. Take care not to fill the blender more than ⅔ full so the hot mixture won’t force the lid off when you turn the blender on. That is not fun.

Transfer the pureed tomatillo mixture to a heavy-bottomed stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the rest of the stock, bay leaf, 1 ½ teaspoons salt and the hominy. Bring the soup to a simmer and add the chicken. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is just cooked through, 15-20 minutes. You can check to see if the chicken is done by removing it and cutting into it with a paring knife. Take care not to overcook it as it gets dry and stringy. You want it to be completely opaque, without any traces of pink but still juicy. Remove the chicken from the pot and set it aside to cool. Continue to cook the soup at a bare simmer for another 10-15 minutes to allow the flavors to come together.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle but still warm, cut it into 1-inch cubes. Use your fingers to shred the cubed chicken.  Do not return the chicken to the pot. Cooking the chicken in the soup further will cause it to lose moisture and toughen.

Taste the posole and add more salt if necessary. Remove the bay leaf.  Ladle the hot soup into serving bowls. Spoon some of the shredded chicken into the center of each bowl. Serve very hot accompanied by garnishes.

*Note: If you don’t eat all of the posole, you can either cool the tomatillo-hominy base then add the shredded chicken and refrigerate, taking care not to overcook the chicken when you reheat the soup.  Or you can store the tomatillo-hominy base and the chicken separately in the refrigerator. When reheating the soup, stir the chicken in just before serving and take it off the heat as soon as the chicken is heated through.

Posole Verde // Milly's Kitchen

baked french toast with pears, hazelnuts and blackberry-cardamom syrup

Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup // Milly's Kitchen

I heard someone speaking the other day about the fear of catastrophe that follows intense joy. Like a streak of lightning after thunder. As though, gazing upon your sleeping babe, your soulmate, your safe and beautiful home, the happiness you feel is too great. So big it aches in your chest. Incomprehensible. And so you must conjure some horrible disaster in your mind to ward off the fear of what might be. A psychic sacrifice to the demons that poke and prick at us all. 

I'm all too familiar with that feeling. 

More often than I’d like to admit, I am afraid that the good things I have might be snatched away from me. Who am I to receive such gifts, experience such joy?, I think. To forestall the unthinkable, I tell myself: Don't get too comfortable. Be vigilant. Work harder. 

But to think like this is to not be fully alive. So for the past several years, I've been trying to let the negative and the dark hold less sway. To be in the here and now and to be wholeheartedly grateful for the many blessings I have.

Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup // Milly's Kitchen

So as one year turns into another, I try to carve out a quiet moment to imagine fresh adventures. And to look back over my year at the many things I have to be grateful for.

This year, that list is huge. 

I got married to a kind and loving man who has made me laugh precisely every single day since we met. I have a husband who loves me as I am and helps me remember that nothing is ever as daunting as it seems with a friend at your side. For this, I am beyond grateful.

Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup // Milly's Kitchen

My work is more inspiring and fulfilling than I ever could have imagined. When I left a business that I helped found and had poured my entire being into, to teach and write and lead culinary adventures, I was terrified. There were lots of days spent wanting to stay in bed with the covers pulled over my head. What if everyone thought my plan was frivolous or stupid? Worse, what if no one showed up?

But you did show up. The tour I led to Paris last year was a lifechanger. Forming friendships with the women who came with me to Paris and watching them marvel in the city’s delights, was one of the high points of my year. For this I am grateful.

Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup // Milly's Kitchen

As was connecting with all of you through this blog. In the beginning, I thought this space would be about posting recipes and sharing tips. Explanations of food science and proper technique. But when I sit down to write, this is what comes out. Thoughts on why cooking and gathering loved ones around the table is so essential. Things I hadn’t articulated clearly before. Even to myself. And the ability to catapult back in time. To summers past and trips to France. To the Thanksgivings of my childhood when my grandmother was still turning out huge trays of her oyster stuffing. And to snowy Christmases spent with good friends. For this, too, I am grateful.

And so, one of the things I am most thankful for this year is you. To all of you who came out to a cooking class, read my blog, shared with me on Instagram, and journeyed with me to Paris, I am so appreciative of all your support. 2014 was an amazing year for me, due in large part to the wonderful connections I made with all of you. So I’m sending you a huge thank you!

I've got a new recipe for you: Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup. It’s just the thing to get everyone around the table for a family breakfast or New Year’s Day brunch.

Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup // Milly's Kitchen

You soak the bread the night before in a ginger-brown sugar custard. Simmer ripe pears in a luscious salted caramel sauce, stir in a handful of toasted hazelnuts, and you’re ready to go. Pop the whole thing in the oven in the morning and you have a simple, elegant breakfast that feeds a crowd. 

The recipe is below. I hope you enjoy it. And I hope you share it with those you are most grateful for. 

Wishing you a Happy and Bright New Year!

- Olaiya 


Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup

For French toast:
5 tablespoons butter, divided, plus additional for greasing the pan
1 1-lb loaf of country white bread or challah, preferably a day or two old
½ vanilla bean
1 packed cup brown sugar, divided
5 large eggs
2 ½ cups whole milk
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
3/4 cup hazelnuts
4 ripe pears

For syrup:
1 cup blackberries, fresh or frozen
½ cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B (which is darker and more delicious in my opinion)
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom


Use a little of the butter to grease a large baking dish. Cut the bread into slices one inch thick. Cut the slices in half diagonally. Arrange the bread in the baking dish in two or three rows, overlapping the slices of bread as necessary to make them fit. Set aside.

Place ½ cup of the brown sugar in a large bowl. Slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Using a paring knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the sugar. Use your fingers to rub the vanilla seeds into the sugar to distribute them evenly. Add the eggs, milk, ginger and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Whisk well to combine.

Pour the custard evenly over the bread in the baking dish. Depending on the size of your dish, you may need to gently push the slices down into the custard with a spoon or flexible spatula so the bread can soak up as much custard as possible.

Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 6 hours and up to 24 hours to allow the custard to soak into the bread. If you notice that there is custard pooling in the bottom of the baking dish, spoon some of the custard over the bread once or twice while it’s chilling. You can also place another roasting pan or pie dish on top of the soaking bread to gently push it down into the custard if your bread is on the sturdy side. The extent to which the custard is absorbed will depend on the type of bread you use and how dry it is.

Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup // Milly's Kitchen

When you are ready to cook the French toast, preheat the oven to 400°F. Remove the baking dish from the refrigerator. If there is still a bit of custard pooling at the bottom of the baking dish, tip out the excess. Set aside.

If you are using pre-roasted and skinned hazelnuts, roughly chop them and set aside. If you have raw hazelnuts, place them on a rimmed sheet pan and toast until fragrant, about 7 minutes. Remove the nuts from the pan so they don’t burn. Place them in the middle of a kitchen towel. Bring the four corners of the towel towards each other and twist them together until you have securely enclosed the nuts in the towel. Vigorously rub the hazelnuts together inside the towel for a minute or so. When you open the towel most of the skins should have fallen off. Roughly chop the toasted and skinned nuts and set aside. 

Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup // Milly's Kitchen

Peel and core the pears then slice them ⅛-inch thick. Heat 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted, add the remaining ½ cup brown sugar and ½ teaspoon salt. Add the pears and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender and the caramel starts to thicken, about 5 minutes. If your pears are quite ripe, it will take a little longer for the moisture to cook off and the caramel to thicken. Remove the pears from the heat and add the chopped hazelnuts. Stir to coat the nuts in caramel. 

Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup // Milly's Kitchen

Spoon the pears and nuts over the prepared bread, tucking some of the caramelized pear in between the slices. Cut the remaining tablespoon of butter into small pieces and dot the top of the French toast with it. Place in the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the custard has set and the French toast is golden brown.

While the French toast is baking, make the syrup: Place the blackberries and syrup in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until the berries are soft and starting to fall apart, about 5 minutes. Strain the syrup through a fine-mesh sieve into a small bowl, pushing on the berries with a spoon or spatula to extract as much berry pulp as possible. Stir the salt and cardamom into the warm syrup.

Rest the French toast for 5-10 minutes before serving with warm Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup.

Makes 6-8 servings

Baked French Toast with Pears, Hazelnuts and Blackberry-Cardamom Syrup // Milly's Kitchen

lebkuchen

Lebkuchen // Milly's Kitchen

The first time I tasted lebkuchen was at a Christmas market in Aachen, Germany. I was studying in Brussels at the time, lounging around on a grey Sunday morning, when my friend, Gösta called. Finding the city insufficiently snowy and festive, he proposed we take a day trip to Germany to experience a traditional Weihnachtsmarkt and some true holiday cheer. I was exceptionally content in the warmth of my duvet. However, Gösta is Swedish, and so clearly an expert on both snow and holiday cheer. And he was driving. Needless to say, I rallied.

We called two other Swedish friends, Katinka and Joakim, folded ourselves into Gösta’s tiny car and headed out of the city. As we approached the German border, flakes began to fall. When we arrived in Aachen, the city and market were as festive and snow-covered as Gösta had predicted. 

Lebkuchen // Milly's Kitchen

The market was on a square flanked on all sides by tall, stepped facades that recalled sugared gingerbread houses. Strings of white lights glowed from the rooftops. Beneath, there were wooden huts selling hand carved ornaments, dense fruit breads, sprays of holly and twisty peppermint candies. The market smelled of roasting nuts and sizzling wurst, which we ordered laden with sautéed onions and a smear of spicy-sweet German mustard.  And there was glühwein, warm mulled wine, that we drank flush-cheeked and huddled close beneath eaves trimmed with icicles.

After the sun had set and the temperature plunged towards truly frigid, we decided it was time to head home. As we wound our way back through the market, we found ourselves on a side-street, in front of a small bakery, its window piled high with German Christmas cookies. Crisp, stamped springerle. Iced cinnamon stars. Humble pfeffernüsse in their jackets of powdered sugar. And another I’d never seen before: pillowy spice cookies emblazoned with blanched almonds and washed with a thin sugar glaze. Lebkuchen. I ordered a heart shaped one, tossed it in my bag and forgot about it entirely.

Excavating my purse several days later, I discovered the somewhat smashed cookie. I took a hesitant bite. Not only was it still good, it was glorious. Tender. Subtly sweet. Tasting of almonds and honey. And spice. There was cinnamon for sure. And ginger perhaps. Something woody and warm like nutmeg or cloves. And something floral like cardamom. And the whole thing was laced through with a ribbon of citrus that kept it from being either too sweet or too dark. 

It has been my favorite Christmas cookie ever since.

Lebkuchen // Milly's Kitchen
Lebkuchen // Milly's Kitchen

When I moved back to the U.S., I discovered that almost no one on the West Coast has heard of lebkuchen. So several Christmases ago, I started my search for the perfect recipe. There are many, many versions of lebkuchen. Ones that strive to reproduce the cookie as it existed in 15th-century Nuremberg (the city in which it originated). Unfussy, American versions using molasses and omitting the traditional marzipan, adapted by German immigrants. Fancified modern versions baked as cupcakes and tarts.

I’ve been tinkering with the recipe for several Christmases. This is simply the version that I like best. There are lots of ground almonds to keep the cookie moist. A good hit of spice and a splash of rum to keep things festive. Three forms of citrus--candied peel, zest and juice--for complexity and to balance the dark spices. And this year, having run out of molasses, I made some with sorghum syrup, which produced my best batch yet. 

Lebkuchen // Milly's Kitchen

Baking these lebkuchen is a delight in itself. Like all good holiday traditions, it calls to mind cherished friends and family near and far. For me, each bite tastes of a German holiday market and a snowy afternoon spent wandering and laughing and drinking glühwein with good friends. To me, these lebkuchen taste perfectly of Christmas. 


Lebkuchen

*A note on ingredients: I prefer sorghum syrup for these cookies, which can be hard to find outside the South. But if you can get your hands on a bottle, its bright sweetness and tart edges will elevate these lebkuchen to some of the finest Christmas cookies around. Light molasses produces great lebkuchen as well. I think dark and blackstrap molasses overwhelm the flavor of the citrus and spice.

Also, I finally found a local source for back oblaten, the thin, edible wafer rounds traditionally used for lebkuchen! If you are in Seattle, you can buy them at PFI. They are also available from specialty sources on the internet. I have made these cookies many times without them, though, and back oblaten are not at all necessary for delicious lebkuchen.

For cookies:
4 oz candied citrus peel, finely chopped (yields about ¾ cup)
2 tablespoons rum, preferably gold or dark 
7 oz (1 ½ cups) whole almonds       
7 oz (1 cup) sugar, divided                       
7 oz (1 ½ cup) all-purpose flour  
1 teaspoon baking powder                                
½ teaspoon kosher salt  
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon                                         
¼ teaspoon ground ginger                                 
¼ teaspoon ground cloves                                 
¼ teaspoon ground allspice                                         
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom    
3 large eggs                    
¼ cup light molasses or sorghum syrup           
Zest of ½ lemon
13 90mm back oblaten, optional
½ cup whole blanched almonds, optional

For glaze:
3 ½ oz (about 1 cup) powdered sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon hot water


Combine the chopped citrus peel and rum in a small bowl. Stir to combine and set aside for at least 15 minutes.

Combine the almonds and 2 tablespoons of the sugar in the bowl of a food processor (a good blender will also work in a pinch). Process until the almonds have been ground to a fine meal. 

Transfer the almonds to a medium bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Stir well to combine.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs with the sugar, molasses or sorghum syrup and lemon zest until foamy. Add the nut mixture and the soaked citrus peel (with any rum in the bottom of the bowl) and stir until just combined. The dough will be quite sticky. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight. 

Preheat the oven to 375° F.

Using a ¼-cup ice cream scoop, scoop the dough onto a parchment-lined sheet pan, leaving at least an inch between each cookie. If you are using the back oblaten, arrange them on a parchment-lined sheet pan and then scoop the dough into the center of each one. Use your fingers to gently flatten the tops of cookies until they are ½ inch thick (wetting your hands makes this a little easier). If you are using back oblaten, leave a ¼-inch border of wafer around the cookie dough. Place three almonds very close together in the center of each lebkuchen (they spread as the lebkuchen cook). Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, rotating the pans after 12 minutes, until the cookies are set but still soft in the middle. When in doubt, pull them sooner rather than later.

While the lebkuchen are baking, make the glaze: Sift the powdered sugar into a small bowl to remove any lumps. Add the lemon juice and hot water and whisk until smooth. 

When the cookies are done, let them cool for a minute or two then transfer to a wire rack set over a parchment-lined sheet pan (to catch glaze drips). Brush the warm lebkuchen with glaze. Repeat if desired. Let the glaze dry completely (an hour or so) before storing.

Store lebkuchen in an airtight container with a small handful of apple peels or a slice of apple or orange. This keeps the cookies moist. The cookies will keep for up to 6 weeks this way and they get better as they age and the spices and citrus oils continue to blend.  

Makes a baker's dozen of large (4-inch) cookies

Lebkuchen // Milly's Kitchen