A 1960s Cocktail Party

sixties themed cocktail partyLast week, while the snow fell wildly in New York, we turned back the clocks inside and celebrated Christmas like we imagined some might have decades ago.

Inspired by a few of my recent vintage cookbook acquisitions and the season finale of Mad Men, I decided to throw a Christmas party that takes place just after the show left us: in December 1963.

Alejandra Ramos and Eugene SmolenskiyFor four weeks straight I dog-eared recipes for clam dip and molded salads, and scoured eBay for mid-century serving pieces (including an awesome deviled egg plate!). I bid (and mostly won) nearly every single magazine I could find from December 1963, amassing a brilliant collection with the intention of leaving them scattered about my apartment; the perfect set dressing to better help guests get into the mood.

Along with the Better Homes & Gardens and Good Housekeeping I left in plain view on our bed (where guests would be leaving their coats), I placed a Life (featuring our brand new President Johnson on the cover) near the bar, a few Gourmets in the kitchen, and a second Look and Saturday Evening Post on one of the chairs in the living room. And, for the boys, I left the 1963 Playboy Christmas special conspicuously displayed in the bathroom. (That's Eugene's brother down there sneaking a peek!)


The playlist was a carefully researched list of popular hits from 1963, along with a few classics from early years (and, I admit, a couple Mancini tunes from the mid-60s that were just too awesome to not include but which absolutely captured the right spirit). I created the whole list via Grooveshark so you can actually check out the playlist or even used it at your own retro cocktail party without having to download or buy anything. It's a wonderful collection of pop hits, bossanova, mambo, bugaloo, and pachanga. (Click here for the retro 1960s playlist)

Poor Eugene has been subjected to it so many times that he actually has a favorite song on it: "The Bossa Nova Hand Dance" by Connie Francis; I'm partial to Ann-Margret's "Thirteen Men" which tells the story of how the H-bomb blew up the world and eliminated everyone except her and thirteen men. Simply the limit!

Party Favors & Goodie Bags

sixties themed party favorsFrom the very start, I knew I wanted to hand out goodie bags to all the guests who attended and while looking for ideas to fill the bags, I came across a great site called "For Your Party" that offered pretty reasonably-priced personalization. I ended up ordering personalized matchboxes, cocktail napkins, and goodie bags that said "Merry Christmas 1963 at Eugene & Alejandra's" in a retro red lettering with cute starburst detail on white backgrounds.

I filled the goodie bags with the matchboxes, a package of vintage gum, jingle bells, Hershey Kisses, Tootsie Rolls & Peanut Butter Cups and some pretty bright red tissue paper to match the lettering on the bags.

Alejandra Ramos
Smoking was still cool in the sixties, but friends don't let friends smoke real cigarettes in 2009, so I ordered a big box of vintage bubblegum cigarettes to offer guests as party favors when they arrived. This way everyone could look just as cool as Don and Betty...without the risk of lung cancer!

The Booze

I wanted the bar to have a mock-polynesian "Tiki" look, so I decorated it with a bamboo runner and a real pineapple. I ordered tropical themed swizzle sticks and cocktail umbrellas which I poked into just about everything!

Eugene arranged Christmas twinkle lights on the back of the bar and I put vintage milk bottles filled with fresh lemon juice, lime juice, and homemade simple syrup. I got two kinds of olives for the martinis, a big vintage milk glass bowl of maraschino cherries, and had Eugene cut up lots of lime and lemon wedges. (note that the above photo was taken after it had already been a bit ransacked)

My collection of bar glasses was set up just to the side. My friend and vintage rockstar extraordinaire Sammy of Sammy Davis Vintage let me borrow her big chrome ice bucket which her parents had received as a wedding present back in the 70s (a big anachronistic, but really perfect!). That's her up there on the left next to my coworker Matthew. (You can read Sammy's own recap of my retro cocktail party here.)

And because no retro cocktail party is complete without a punch bowl, I also mixed up a big bowl of pink Sparkling Gin Punch in a big vintage grape leaf punch bowl.

Along with the vintage magazine, I set out a few bowls of homemade peppermint bark and cocktail books to add to the scene. We made a trip out to BJs the weekend before and stocked up on the booze, mixers, and bitters so we could offer our guests a full bar.

My friend Matt Looney played bartender masterfully, bringing along his full set of bar tools and shakers, and serving up an Old Fashioned that would have made Don Draper drool! Eugene thought he did such a fine job that he set out a tip cup for him and tossed in a few bills.

The Decoration

In the interest of space and authenticity, I decided to trade my usual big green Christmas tree for a retro tabletop aluminum one just like they had in the sixties. I was vying for a real vintage beauty on eBay but fell victim to my ADD just seconds before the bidding closed and lost out. Fortunately, I came across a perfect version on the West Elm website and called a nearby store to see if they had any in stock. The salesgirl told me they only had a floor model so, like a good thrifty 60s hostess, I negotiated and was able to bring it home for less than half the original price!

The rest of the apartment was decorated with plenty of twinkle lights, dangling icicles, and baskets of glittery Christmas ornaments. I lit candles all over the place (although far away from the flammable aluminum Christmas tree) and placed candy dishes filled with Hershey kisses and starlight mints all over the rooms.

The Menu

Food is key when planning any kind a party, and nevermore-so with such a specific retro theme. I relied heavily on my collection of vintage cookbooks including The Betty Crocker Hostess Cookbook, Helen Gurley Brown's Single Girl's Cookbook, Cosmo Cookery, and Thoughts for Buffets. There were so many incredible (and somewhat quirky) recipes, that I had to stop myself from making them ALL. To be honest, I just spent most of the time wishing I could open up a retro bed and breakfast that would be all vintage ALL THE TIME! Wouldn't that be amazing?

I'm also thinking that I may need to do a "vintage food for modern living" cookbook someday in the future because there is just too much good stuff out there that really shouldn't be lost (and which I know would appeal to all the retro fans out there. Consider it officially added to my list of life goals!

After hearing me talk about it for weeks, I know that some of my friends were a little freaked about the food that I would be serving, but when the time came, many of them were shocked by how good it actually was. I'll never forget my friend and coworker Aryanna's face when she took her first bite of my special Lime, Cucumber, Pineapple, and Cilantro Jell-O salad and exclaimed

"Miss Ramos! This is SO good! Why is this good?!" before helping herself to a second slice.

The truth is it WAS good. Refreshing and fruity; I definitely plan on serving it again come summertime...and I will absolutely be experimenting with more Jell-O salads. They're delightful!

I also really enjoyed being able to play with the presentation and decoration of all the food; it was a chance to really let go and just have fun with it all. My rule for sixties style food plating was basically "do a lot. then add three things." Hence the porcupine-shaped cheese ball (we named him "Delicious"), the salmon-shaped salmon mousse, and the copious umbrellas and skewers. Oh and when in doubt, ALWAYS add a sprinkle of paprika! Or a cherry! Or a cocktail umbrella!

Here is my complete party menu. (The recipes are being slowly posted and linked below in the menu.)

The Always Order Dessert 1960s Cocktail Party Menu

Buffet Table
Clam Dip
(Adapted from Helen Gurley Brown's Single Girl's Cookbook, 1969)

Homemade French Onion Dip
(original recipe based on the classic Lipton dip)

Molded Salmon Mousse with dill and crackers, served on a bed of watercress

Shrimp Cocktail

Lime, Cucumber, Pineapple & Cilantro Jell-O Salad
(adapted from Thoughts for Buffets, 1958)

Mock-Rumaki with Scallops in Oriental Sauce
(adapted from the Betty Crocker Hostess Cookbook, 1965)

Chafing Dish Cocktail Sausages
(Betty Crocker Hostess Cookbook, 1965)

Swedish Meatballs
(adapted from Thoughts for Buffets, 1958 and the Betty Crocker Hostess Cookbook, 1965)

Porcupine Cheese Ball
(adapted from an olive ad in Better Homes and Gardens, December 1963)

Deviled Ham Paste Sandwiches
(family recipe)

Deviled Eggs
(Betty Crocker Hostess Cookbook, 1965)

Pineapple and Brown Sugar glazed Spiral Ham
(adapted from Thoughts for Buffets, 1958)

(Eugene's recipe)


Utz Potato Chips
(courtesy of Sterling Cooper)

Ambrosia Fruit Salad
(adapted from ErinCooks.com)

Sugar Cookies
(adapted from the Betty Crocker Hostess Cookbook, 1965)

Rice Krispie Treats
(classic Kellogg's recipe)


Sparkling Gin Punch
(Gourmet Magazine, June 1967)

Old Fashioned

French 75
(my personal favorite)

Bitter Orange Kindler
(Gourmet Magazine, December 1965)

Ward 8 Cocktail
(Gourmet Magazine, October 1962)

Bloody Mary

Full Bar

Even though there was a blizzard raging outside, nearly everyone who intended to come still made it out to the party. Guests came in from New Jersey, Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island, and all over the city. Even my little brother, Gabriel, who NEVER comes to any of my parties, drove in from Jersey with his good friend, Dan, and (reportedly) had a great time (that's Gab in the swanky hat)!

Alejandra Ramos
I asked that the guests come dressed for the era with skinny ties and vintage glam and everyone looked wonderful. We had a fantastic time and I look forward to another great party next year!!!

To see the rest of the pictures from the part, you can visit my Flickr or Facebook albums. And be sure to let me know in the comments how you all celebrated your own Christmas and New Year's parties!!

The Saveur 100

The 2010 Saveur 100 list was announced today featuring 100 of the best, most inspiring food-related things of the year. Saveur releases this round-up of foodie awesomeness every January, but this year they decided to mix things up by having their readers decide what makes the list. I decided to join the fray and submitted two ideas back in the summer (I distinctly remember doing it while sitting on my bed just before going to sleep), then promptly forgot about it.

A couple months ago, I started getting phone calls and emails from various Saveur editors letting me know that not just one, but BOTH of my ideas were going to be featured in the issue. I was stunned! They received 1,348 entries, which they had to narrow down to 100, and still ended up choosing two of mine! That, as Eugene so poignantly noted that the time, is "friggin' awesome." A few emails went back and forth while the editors had me refine my little articles, and then I sat back and not-so-patiently waited for the issue to be released. (I even went so far as to look up a copy of the 2010 Saveur editorial calendar in order to see the exact on-sale date!)

This morning I woke up to a couple very effusive thank you tweets from Sarah of Tastespotting.com, the amazing visual potluck of a website that was one of my entries and #11 on the Saveur 100. I quickly hopped out of bed to check out the rest of the list and saw that my second entry, wonton wrappers, was #45 (with a gorgeous 3/4 page layout at that!).

Congratulations to everyone who made the list, whether as a contributor or as one of the listed. It's a fantastic way to start the year, and I'm stating now that it is officially one of my goals to actually BE one of the Saveur 100 within the next few years; whether it's my blog, my self, or one of my future books, I don't know yet, but it's definitely going to happen.

(Oh and needless to say, I cannot wait until I finally get my copy of the magazine so that I can read all the other amazing entries in detail. And, I admit, so that I can stare at my name printed in one of my favorite magazines.) Visit Saveur's website to check out the rest of the list or click here for an easy and simple pesto ravioli recipe featuring wonton wrappers (gyoza, actually, but it's the same idea), and feel free to brag in the comments if any of your entries also made it!


5 Great Holiday Dessert Recipes

As you know, I’ve been busily plotting and planning for my Christmas party this coming Saturday, and am guessing that many of you are doing the same. I thought I’d feature a few great desserts that you might like to try for your guests. As always, there are many more ideas listed in my recipe index, and I’m always happy to help or answer any specific questions you may have about my recipes. Just send me an e-mail!

1. Chardonnay Cake with an Almond-Sugar Crust

This is a quick and easy cake that will look drop-dead gorgeous on your holiday table, but no one will suspect that it took less than an hour to make. A glass of chardonnay is the secret ingredient that makes this cake ultra-moist, while adding a nice hint of boozy flavor, all topped off with a crunchy crust of sliced almonds and sparkling raw sugar. Get the recipe here.


On Jell-O Salads

Lime Cheese Salad, originally uploaded by larry&flo.
This isn't the exact Jell-O salad I will be serving at the party next weekend, but it's pretty close. I'm a little terrified that my gelatin dishes won't un-mold properly. I'm guessing many 60s hostesses also dealt with the same anxiety.

While the combination of lime, pineapple, and cucumber might seem a little bit odd, I'm reassured by the fact that my absolute favorite cocktail includes these very same ingredients. Maybe I should just add a little gin to the recipe and make it a Jell-O salad-shot...

Another Party Update

Well, hello! As I'm sure you noticed, I gave myself a little bit of a break this past week these past 12 days. It's been a blur of activity and planning for the 1963-themed Christmas cocktail party, though. I have finally found an outfit to wear, although it took several shopping trips and I confess that I somehow ended up with, um, eight new dresses in the process. I actually haven't made my final decision about which I'll end up wearing, but I'm definitely ready.

I am a little hesitant to divulge all the extra touches I prepared to heighten the authenticity of the party as I want them to be surprises for the guests. But then again, I also want to share some of these tips in case any of you are planning similarly themed events. I hope you'll be patient and wait until next week, but if you are super curious or looking for ideas for your own Mad Men or 1960s cocktail party, just email me at nanditablogs@gmail.com and I'll fill you in on all the fun details.

We have a great crowd confirmed to come, although there are still eight (8!!!) people who have refused to answer my multiple requests for RSVPs. Today is the deadline and I'm seriously considering uninviting all eight of them if I don't hear from them by 11:59pm today.

In a little while, Eugene and I will be heading out to my parent's house in New Jersey to pick up my Christmas decorations (I store them at their house since we don't have the room here) and then over to BJs in East Rutherford to stock up the bar. Fresh Direct will be delivering the final groceries on Thursday evening, and Friday will be spent decorating, rearranging the furniture, and doing every bit of early preparation that I can possibly do so that Saturday can be all about finishing touches and teasing my hair.


Eugene came home this afternoon with a dozen roses for me. "Is this for our month-aversary?" I asked.

"No," he replied. "It's to celebrate your successful completion of NaBloPoMo."

"Ooooh!" I squealed. "That's even better!" At which point he frowned slightly, but I think he knew what I meant.

The point is that with this post I've officially completed my 30 days of NaBloPoMo! I'm beyond giddy with excited and--I'm just going to say it--pretty darn proud of myself for getting through it despite all the other stuff I took on this month (Book Proposal writing class, Fake Thanksgiving shopping and planning and cooking, Real Thanksgiving shopping and baking).

Loosening the restrictions and allowing myself to just write without any rules unleashed my creativity and is absolutely what made this all possible. And even despite that, I just counted and realized that I posted 25 new original recipes on the site this month. I guess like most things, the good comes along when you stop trying so hard and just let it happen.

I hope to keep up the momentum (though perhaps not *quite* as copiously). Especially now that Christmas is coming since that means a whole bunch of party and holiday recipes (many with a retro twist). I hope you'll stick around!

Retro Cocktail Party Planning Continues

Today, Eugene and I got ourselves out of bed at a reasonable hour and headed off to the Housing Works Thrift store on the Upper West Side. It was a two-fold plan. First, I wanted to drop off a couple bags of clothing and a box of books that I've been meaning to donate for a while. It was actually really easy. I just walked the stuff to the back of the store (well, Eugene carried the box of books) and dropped it off. I filled out a quick form for my tax receipt and then I was free to proceed with the second part of my plan: shopping!

I have a very particular list of things that I want to get for the party. I'm all set on glasses (thanks to my own collection plus a little help from the Crate & Barrel Outlet store) and serving trays (from eBay, Sur La Table, Crate & Barrel). I ordered a few old fashioned molds from Sur La Table for my gelatin and fish mousse creations; I admit I was only going to buy one, but somehow I ended up with one of each kind in my shopping cart. Whoops! I justified it by convincing myself that they serve two purposes: practical and decorative. I plan to hang them on the wall above my stove a la Goldie Hawn in Cactus Flower (more about that later...).

Today I was able to find one of the other key pieces: a punch bowl! It's glass with a grape-pattern decoration along the sides. I love it because it has a nice full belly with a slightly narrower rim, which will help avoid spills. I can't wait to fill it up with something boozy and (probably) pink. I also found a set of very quirky coasters with mod Asian ladies on them for just two dollars. They're like little works of art and will look perfect underneath all those martinis and whiskey sours I plan on serving.

I'm still on the hunt for a nice big ice bucket (something shiny and chrome), a big cocktail shaker so that Matt Looney (my appointed bartender) can pour them out a few at a time, and MOST importantly: my fabulous dress. If you have any great recommendations for vintage stores in NYC that carry a nice and moderately priced 60s cocktail and evening gown selection, please send them my way!

In the meantime, I'm keeping busy with those vintage cookbooks I already told you about, and doing a little bit of film research courtesy of the Netflix "Instant Play" options. Recent 60s movie picks have included Cactus Flour (starring Walter Matthau, Ingrid Bergman, and introducing the gorgeous Goldie Hawn who won an Oscar for her role as a 20-something free spirit), The Courtship of Eddie's Father (Glenn Ford and a tiny Ron Howard!), and How To Steal a Million (with the lovely Audrey Hepburn). They're fabulous for great 60s style and decorating inspiration.


An Old Fashioned Cocktail Party

Eugene just pointed out the fact that I'm just a few days short of the finish line with this whole NaBloPoMo thing. I'm actually pretty amazed that I was able to make it this far considering my performance (or lack of) last year.

The irony is that during these past several busy weeks, I had less trouble thinking of things to write about than these past couple lazy days. It's the inertia of the holidays, I suppose!

The truth is that I've actually spent the past couple days planning for the next big holiday...Christmas! I usually throw a big cocktail party each December and all my friends make the trip up to our apartment where we go through dozens of bottles of wine and champagne and stay upright thanks to the various platters of canapes.

This year I decided to give in to my obsession for all things retro, and will be hosting a classic 60s era cocktail party...complete with a full bar, classy glasses, and an array of early-60s recipes culled from my collection of used bookstore finds. I'm talking rumaki and molded jiggly things here!

I've been busy shopping for vintage trays on eBay, practicing my bouffant hairstyle, and leafing through these wonderful vintage cookbooks. Like one book called "Thoughts for Buffets" which is filled with hundreds of party recipes, cocktails, and fabulous table decorating ideas. Occasionally I'll look up from the book and read out one of the recipe combinations to Eugene who grimaces and flinches and asks me if I expect people to actually eat this food.

That one is actually a bit wackier than my long-time favorite, a book called "Cosmo Cookery," which I picked up a couple years before I actually started working with the magazine. It's written by the fantastic (Still!!!) Helen Gurley Brown and offers up menu after menu for the Cosmo girl who wants to entertain her "beaus." (Plural!!!) Think breakfast for the morning after or a late night supper after a romp in bed. Not *quite* as useful for the party, but entertaining nonetheless. (Plus each menu comes with matching cocktails and table decorations in a way that makes me think Semi-Homemade Sandra Lee and Ina Garten must have both been gifted this book back in their youth.)

And then there is the Betty Crocker Hostess Cookbook, which I was determined to get my hands on the minute I spotted it propped up on a stand on Betty Draper's kitchen counter. It took me a couple On Demand "rewind and pauses," before I was able to figure out the title, but after that, it wasn't long before I located a first edition in fantastic condition.

A funny thing is the book was actually published in 1967 for the first time. And yet it somehow managed to show up in several episodes of Mad Men dated 1962 and 1963 (as evidenced by last years New Year's party and Kennedy's recent death). It's unusual since the set dressers for the show tend to be pretty fantastically accurate.

I'm happy to ignore the anachronism though because the recipes in it are just priceless. As it promises on the cover, it's filled with "a wealth of ideas for today's entertaining." And (even better) they're illustrated with absolutely awful photos. The kind of photos that would totally get rejected from Tastespotting for "unflattering composition," "lighting," and "not sharp."

The recipes and photos are accompanied with wonderful tips for the hostess, and delightful suggestions like "Salad is enough when it's just the girls, but if men will be joining you at lunch, be sure to serve a real man's meat."

Ahh...the sixties!

I'm ridiculously excited about this party, and as you can see, am diving into the preparation like it's my job. I thought I should warn you since it's inevitable that my "research" will soon start appearing here on the blog.

Molded salmon mousse, anyone?

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. And if you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, please don't hesitate to e-mail me.

A Tiny Request

I'm absolutely lazy about posting today, but I promise I'll be back tomorrow with more. In the meantime, can I shamelessly ask you for your vote for the Bon Appetit Bake-Off? I made the Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake you see in this photo. You can get the recipe and read all about it here, or simply vote for me here in the "cakes" category.

Thank you!



5 Last-Minute Thanksgiving Recipe Ideas

Are you still looking for last-minute Thanksgiving recipe ideas? Seriously!? Well, it's OK. I'm not going to judge. Lord knows I am a fan of last-minute everything...

And I have a few ideas that you might like...

Star Anise & Vanilla Bean Poached Pears

One night about 4 or 5 years ago, my friend Matt and I went to see a movie at the wonderful little independent movie theater in Dupont Circle just a few blocks from my then-apartment. I think the movie was Capote.

After the movie, we wandered out onto the sidewalk and spent a few minutes trying to figure out where to go to dinner, when, just over Matthew's shoulder, I spotted one of my journalism professors, a cranky veteran reporter with a slightly jaundiced pallor, standing intimately close to a much younger girl with long thick hair and Asian features.

This thrilled me the way that catching a professor living a real life outside of the classroom can thrill any student, and so we took off giggling and hiding and conjecturing having stumbled upon an illicit affair on that weekday evening. We passed the entrance to an Italian tratoria on Jefferson Place (a nobby little street I've always loved) that I'd been long-obsessed with because it was underground and had stone steps and a charmingly cliche Chianti bottle hanging above the doorway. And because Matt was usually game for a nice dinner on an average evening, we went in and were seated right away under a brick wall covered in photos of Giovanni, the owner, with random celebrities. (Of course, this was DC, so the celebrities were people like Sam Donaldson and the Ambassador of Kuwait and the ever-rapacious Helen Thomas.)

The dinner was good; I ordered costolleta alla milanese, which was the most expensive entree on the menu, and Matt some kind of pasta, which I recall him describing in a very Matt-like way as being "great but not memorable." But really, it was the dessert that somehow buried itself into my brain as one of the most perfect things I've ever tasted: a white wine poached pear served with vanilla ice cream and an ethereal coat of caramel sugar. I spent the next 15 or so minutes in absolute rapture as I ate and exclaimed and forced spoonfuls of my dessert at Matt who was (I'm absolutely sure) nursing some kind of coffee beverage.

The funny thing that I'm realizing as I write this, is the way that magnificent pear seems to have frozen all the details of that night in my brain. It was the first poached pear I'd ever eaten, which I suppose explains some of the fascination, but to be honest there was something magical in the blend of flavors that really captured my imagination, and which (I suspect) I've been trying to recreate with every single vanilla bean I've split and scraped ever since.

These pears...the ones I'm offering you today, I'm sorry to say, are not as perfect as the one I had that night. But they are wonderful and taste the way I suppose the word "gold" would taste if you were to lick it one quiet afternoon. It's the anise and the vanilla, which infuse the syrup, and (of course) the fat little pears which sit solidly on the plate, swollen and brimming with vanilla speckled nectar. And because when things are good I just like to keep on pushing, I served these with warm chocolate ganache and a spoon for drizzling.

Serve these on Thanksgiving as your dessert, along with kiwi sorbet and some kind of boozy cake. They're actually perfect for a crowd since they can be made ahead and can be served cold or at room temperature or even hot, if you prefer. And the leftovers can be sliced and heaped over a pile of pancakes or baked into a clafouti then served to the family member who still happen to be hanging around the morning after.

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. And if you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, please don't hesitate to e-mail me.

Star Anise & Vanilla Bean Poached Pears

1 bottle white wine (I used a buttery Chardonnay)
1 cup apple cider or water
3/4 cup white granulated sugar
3 tablespoons honey
1 whole vanilla bean, split
6 star anise pods
2 cloves
6 firm pears (such as Bartlett or Bosc)

1. Peel the pears, leaving the stems in place. Core from the bottom. Use a paring knife to slice off a tiny bit of the bottom in order to create a flat base.

2. In a 4 or 5 quart saucepan or dutch oven, combine the wine, water, sugar, honey, vanilla, anise, and cloves. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to make sure all the sugar and honey is dissolved.

3. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and place the pears in the liquid. If the liquid doesn't rise high enough to cover them while upright, place on their sides, but rotate every 10 minutes so that they are poached evenly on all sides. Continue to cook for 25-30 minutes until the pears are tender but not mushy (use a thin knife gently inserted in the side of the smallest pear to test).

4. Remove the pairs to a large air-tight container and cover with the liquid. Let cool to room temperature, then cover and place in the refrigerator to chill (up to 24 hours).

5. The day you are ready to serve, remove the pears to a serving dish and pour the liquid back in a saucepan. Reduce the syrup over medium-high heat for 15-20 minutes until slightly thick. Let cool to room temperature before pouring over the pears. Serve alone, with whipped cream, or with a drizzle of chocolate ganache.

Kitchen Tip: Homemade Almond Paste

A few readers have e-mailed to say that they can't find almond paste where they live and have asked for alternatives. I'm going to share a really simple recipe showing you how to make homemade almond paste. The ingredients are almonds, sugar, egg whites, and vanilla, so you should all be able to make this easily at home.

This homemade almond paste can be used in my recipe for Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake, as a filling for danish or cakes, or for any other recipe that calls for almond paste. (Note that this is different than marzipan.)

New to Always Order Dessert? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed, follow me on Twitter, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates by filling in your address in the box on the right. And if you ever need any entertaining or cooking advice, please don't hesitate to e-mail me.

Homemade Almond Paste

3 cups blanched almonds
3 cups confectioners (powdered) sugar
2 large egg whites, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon pure almond extract
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

To Make:

Pour almonds into the food processor and process until finely ground.

Add the confectioner's sugar, egg whites, vanilla extract, almond extract, and salt and continue to blend until smooth and well combined. Use paste immediately, or place in a an air-tight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Kiwi Sorbet

The desserts on my fake-Thanksgiving table were a bit more colorful than the usual shades of orange and um...pecan that usually fill the holiday table. But as someone who has little interest in pumpkin pie or corn syrup pie (which, let's face it, is actually what pecan pie is), I decided to try a few new things for my menu.

I went to the market with vague ideas and a desire to let the seasonal produce inspire me. It was a the towering display of plump, in-season kiwis that first got me excited.

I grabbed a handful and held them up to Eugene. "Did you know that it's kiwi season now? I'm going to make kiwi sorbet for the party."

Kiwi, like citrus, is a winter fruit that's often mistakenly appropriated for summer. But mid-to-late November is really when the gorgeous green fruits start to come into their own. Usually eaten raw, a sorbet is a simple way to highlight the natural flavor of the in-season fruit while still making it exciting enough to serve at the end of a festive meal. When I was making this, I casually tossed a whole vanilla bean and a few star anise pods into the simple syrup as it cooled. It infused the syrup with just a hint of flavor that really played quite nicely with the natural honey-like flavor of the kiwi fruit.

Sorbet is a simple frozen treat to make. Though I recommend using an ice cream maker for sorbet, there are ways of doing it without one and I recommend Anna's tutorial for advice. At home, I use a small ice cream maker that my brother gave me for Christmas a few years ago, and which can easily be purchased online very inexpensively (I've seen it for less than 30 dollars at times) or possibly even on Craigslist. These machines are wonderfully versatile and don't take up that much space (even in my tiny kitchen) so if you're interested, keep an eye out for a good deal.

I served this sorbet along with white wine and anise poached pears, a rich chocolate ganache sauce, and my Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake. The sorbet is particularly lovely when drizzled with the chocolate sauce. Kiwi, I've discovered, is wonderful when paired with bittersweet chocolate.

At my party, a few of the guests noted that I must have gone to a lot of trouble to prepare the sorbet since I had to peel all those kiwis. I told them about the great "spoon trick" I use to peel the kiwi, which cuts the time down to a few seconds per fruit. I decided to film a quick video to show you all how simple it really is. If you plan to make this recipe, I definitely suggest checking it out first as it will save a lot of time.

A few notes to keep in mind when making sorbet:

1. Sugar and alcohol are what keep the sorbet soft and scoop-able. You can skip the alcohol in this recipe, but note that the sorbet will probably freeze a bit harder so you'll have to remove it from the freezer 10 minutes or so before serving.

2. The sweetness of the sorbet mix will be much weaker once you freeze it. It's good to keep this in mind when testing the recipe. You want it to be a little sweeter than your final product so don't be too scared about adding sugar. Of course, do keep the natural sweetness of the fruit in mind when preparing the recipe. You can also add a hint of honey, or more lemon juice to balance the flavor.

Kiwi Sorbet
Hints of vanilla, rum, and star anise help to highlight the wonderful natural flavor of the kiwi.

10 kiwi fruits
1 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean (optional)
3 star anise pods (optional)
2 tablespoons rum (I used a coconut flavored rum, you can also substitute vodka)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

To make:
In a medium size saucepan, combine the water and sugar, and bring to a boil until all the sugar is dissolved. Lower the heat and let simmer for 2-4 minutes or until the water reduces slightly. Turn off the heat and add the anise pods and vanilla bean, cover and let cool to room temperature. Once cool, remove the anise pods and vanilla bean and reserve the syrup.

Peel the kiwis and cut each one in half. (Check out my tutorial on How to Peel a Kiwi for a great trick to do this quickly.) Use a blender or food processor to puree the fruit until smooth.

Combine the kiwi puree with the cooled syrup, rum, and lemon juice. Pour into your ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. Pour the frozen sorbet into an air-tight container and store in the freezer for up to 2 weeks.

How to Peel a Kiwi (A Video Tutorial)

One of my many plans for the upcoming year, is to incorporate video tutorials and podcasts here on the blog. I'm starting this today with my very first video tutorial.

It's a quick, two-minute video where I show you my favorite technique for peeling a kiwi fruit. You don't need any special equipment and it's a great way to perfectly peel a whole bowl of kiwis for use in a salad, a fruit plate, or in a recipe like my Kiwi Sorbet.

I hope you enjoy my first video, and please let me know what you think! Also, if you have any special requests for similar tutorials, please let me know in the comments.


Black Pepper & Parmesan Puff Pastry Cheese Straws

These cheese straws smelled so good when they came out of the oven that I had a hard time controlling myself long enough to take a photo. Once I got a decent enough shot, Eugene and I dove right in and devoured them alongside a bowl of egg salad. An odd meal, but also oddly perfect.

The straws are a great mix salty, chewy, and crisp with just a hint of heat from the cracked black pepper. When Eugene took his first bite, he turned to me and said, "These are so good they make me angry! I'm mad that I had to wait 26 years to taste this!" Needless to say, we didn't have any leftovers.

Normal people (i.e. not us) might prefer to serve these when company comes over. They go quickly though, so I would highly,
highly recommend doubling the recipe. This way you won't get stuck wishing you'd made more.

These cheese straws also lend themselves well to adaptation. Experiment using a blend of cheeses and added spices. Think Asiago or cheddar, or perhaps a dash of cayenne or rosemary. You can also cut the puff pastry into 1" pieces for a fun and "pop-able" snack.

Black Pepper & Parmesan Puff Pastry Cheese Straws

2 sheets frozen puff pastry, defrosted
All purpose flour for dusting
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1.5 cups finely grated Parmeggiano Reggiano
Freshly Grated Black Pepper
Kosher salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

Lightly flour you work surface then roll out both sheets of puff pastry. Go over them both with a rolling pin just to smooth them out slightly.

Brush the surface of both sheets lightly with the beaten egg. Sprinkle both sheets liberally and evenly with the grated cheese and then generously sprinkle with freshly cracked black pepper. Run over the sheets with your rolling pin to press the seasonings and cheese into the pastry. Sprinkle lightly with Kosher salt.

Used a pizza cutter or sharp knife to cut each sheet legnthwise into 10-12 strips each. Twist the strips and arrange on baking sheets lined with parchment paper, about 1" apart.

Bake for 10-12 minutes until they begin to turn golden and puff slightly. Turn each twist over and let bake for an additional 3-5 minutes or until golden and puffed. Be sure to keep an eye on them at the end since the cheese can easily burn.

Let cool and serve at room temperature.

More Thanksgiving Recipe Ideas

I noticed that a lot of readers are coming here for Thanksgiving recipe ideas, so I've decided to collect and highlight a few recipes from the archives that can really work well for your dinner this year. I've noted on each entry if it's something that can be made ahead or if it can be served at room temperature or cold. Also check out the Recipe Index for more ideas or my suggestions for Quick & Easy Thanksgiving Sides that can be prepared in 15 minutes or less of active time.

If you have any specific questions or need help with any recipe (even if it's not one of mine!) send me an email and I'll be happy to help. Think of me as your Thanksgiving cooking hotline! ;)

Pumpkin Spice Challah--This sweet pumpkin challah with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg would be incredible on your Thanksgiving table. It can be made the day before and the leftover are lovely toasted with butter or made into French toast. You can also make them into small rolls by reducing the cooking time to about 20-25 minutes.

Rosemary & Garlic Focaccia Rolls--The dough for these rolls can be made 24 hours in advance and then simply prepared and baked the day of. The rosemary and garlic would pair well with the warm autumn flavors on your table.


Savory Rosemary & Chevre Mini Muffins--These savory muffins can be made up to 8 hours in advance and can be served warm or room temperature. They can be an easy appetizer along with your cheese plate, or can be served along with the meal as a bread.

Homemade Membrillo
--This is my tutorial on making membrillo, a sweet quince paste that is often served along with cheese as an appetizer or during a cheese course. This recipe can be made several weeks in advance and can be served cold or room temperature. (Oh and because I hate peeling, I show you how to do it without having to peel the quince!)

Mini Crabcakes with Cilantro & Lime Aioli--These are a perfect appetizer because they can be prepared and assembled well in advance and are baked, not fried (!!). The aioli can be made from scratch, or by simply adding the herbs and spices to prepared mayonnaise. Easy!

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds--This is a great little snack to keep in bowls on the coffee table for guests to snack on while enjoying their cocktails. This can be made in advance and should be served at room temperature.


Chestnut, Bacon, and Green Apple Soup--if you'd like to start your meal off with a soup course, this is definitely the way to go. This soup can be prepared in about 30 minutes total, and can be prepared in advance then quickly reheated just before serving.

Potage Parmentier (Potato Leek Soup)--This is an easy classic that can also be prepared in advance and can actually be served either hot or cold.

Roasted Potato Salad w/ Red Pepper & Smoked Paprika Dressing--The smoky dressing on this salad makes it perfect for Fall. It can be prepared ahead of time and served cold.

Mixed Green Salad with Ginger Vinaigrette --This is great homemade dressing that you can blitz up 24-hours in advance and serve with any packaged or freshly cut salad greens.


Classic Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta--This creamy and cool dessert can be made up to 2 days in advance.

Vanilla Bean & Anise Poached Quince
--This easy preparation for quince, which are in season right now, can be served with ice cream or over a basic pound cake.

Carrot Cake with Maple Orange Cream Cheese
--This is my favorite carrot cake recipe and it can be made with shredded fresh carrots or leftover pulp from a juicer.

Flourless Chocolate Hazelnut Torte--A completely flourless chocolate cake made with ground hazelnut meal (you can also substitute ground almond meal or ground macadamia nuts). This is one of the easiest cakes ever. Simply dump all the ingredients in a bowl, mix, and bake. It's always a favorite with chocolate fans.

Apple Cake--Another easy cake that highlights the flavors of the season. Use a mix of your favorite apples and serve with freshly whipped cream.

5 Quick & Easy Thanksgiving Side Dishes

Anyone who has ever prepared Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd will understand what I mean when I say that time has a way of disappearing that day. One minute you are popping out of bed with a list of things to do, and then next you're rushing to get dressed while the first guests are already ringing the doorbell.

That’s why I’ve come up with five incredible Thanksgiving side dishes that each take only 15 minutes or less of active time to prepare. Whether you're looking for something traditional or craving a dish that's a little spicy and exciting, I'm sure you'll find something in this list that you like. Just a few quick minutes in the kitchen and you can let the oven or stove take over while you go and try to find those last two missing napkin rings.

1. Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon & Walnuts

Eugene and I are a little bit obsessed with this dish and it’s a regular on our weekday dinner menu. Sometimes, we don’t even put it on a plate; we just plop the baking sheet right on the coffee table and go to town with our forks while watching The Office.

It’s also one of my favorite side dishes to serve when I have company over. The sprouts crisp up on the outside while staying nice and tender inside. Add the salty/smoky bacon and a few handfuls of toasted walnuts and you are golden! It’s easy and an almost guaranteed crowd pleaser. It’s totally one of those dishes that people who claim to hate Brussels sprouts eat and then say “wow! These are good!”

You can prep these ahead of time on Thanksgiving. Simply trim and quarter the sprouts, toss with some olive oil, walnuts, and diced bacon then spread out on a big baking sheet. When the turkey comes out of the oven, crank up the heat to 400, then pop these in while the turkey rests. Both will be ready to serve at the same time.

2. Creamed Kale

This is a wonderful and unexpected twist on the usual creamed spinach. Unlike the latter, which can sometimes be mushy or soggy, Creamed Kale offers a bit more bite and substance for a lush side dish that will stand up quite nicely to any kind of turkey. A rich cream sauce of butter, cream, and just a hint of nutmeg play wonderfully against the natural nutty taste of the kale. (And yes, you MUST use the nutmeg. It makes the dish.)

You can use any kind of kale, but for a quick shortcut, grab a package of (fresh! NOT frozen) pre-washed and pre-cut kale. I've seen these at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, BJs, and pretty much every major supermarket (look for it near the "salad in a bag"). If you can’t find it, you can use whole kale, but you’ll have to tack on an extra 3 minutes to your prep time while you quickly rinse and shred the leafy green. (scroll down for the complete recipe)

3. Chipotle & Cola Braised Sweet Potatoes

Anyone who loves Southwestern flavors or a little spice will fall madly for these sweet and spicy sweet potatoes. I save time by skipping the peeling. The peel on the sweet potato is completely edible and actually packs a great nutrient punch.

To prepare, just scrub them well and slice into thick one-inch rounds. Layer these into a baking dish then drizzle with olive oil and pour in the braising liquid: a blend of cola (Coke, Pepsi, or Malta), chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, plus a few pats of butter. Cover tightly with foil then pop in the oven alongside your turkey for 35 minutes.

The potatoes will come out of the oven tender and flavorful. (Scroll down for the complete recipe.)

4. Roasted Plum Tomatoes with Garlic & Shallots

It's very late in the season, but in most places you can still find some lovely plum tomatoes. Drizzled with olive oil, crushed coriander, garlic, and whole shallots, and roasted in the oven for an hour, the tomatoes come out sweet and dripping with rich and flavorful juices.

Serve the roasted tomatoes at room temperature along with your dinner, or use them to top slices of toasted baguette that have been spread with cream cheese or chevre for a easy appetizer your guests can enjoy along with their first glass of champagne. (Scroll down for the recipe)

5. Napa Cabbage Slaw with Mustard & Apple Butter Vinaigrette

This autumnal take on the classic coleslaw would be a perfect addition to your Thanksgiving table. Unlike the summery version that's heavy with mayonnaise and...well...basically it's just mayonnaise, this one gets its creaminess from a warm and tangy dressing redolent with the flavors of mustard and and apple butter. Toasted pecans add a lovely crunch and like all the best Thanksgiving sides, it can be prepared well ahead of time. Get the recipe here.

Still need a great cranberry sauce recipe? Try my Spiced Cranberry Orange Sauce.

Still trying to decide the best way to cook your turkey? Try my Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey for the juiciest turkey breast you've ever tasted.

Looking for Thanksgiving dessert ideas? Come back tomorrow because that's next on the agenda!

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Walnuts

2 pounds Brussels sprouts
3/4 cup walnuts halves
Extra virgin olive oil
3 strips bacon, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
kosher salt
black pepper

To make:

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees

First prepare the Brussels sprouts: trim off the stems and then quarter. Combine the Brussels sprouts in a large bowl with the walnuts and drizzle liberally with olive oil. Use your hands to mix and maker sure they are all coated well.

Spread the Brussels sprouts and walnuts in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Scatter the bacon pieces evenly throughout the pan, then season with kosher salt and black pepper.

Roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes or until the sprouts and bacon are crisp.

Creamed Kale

2 pounds kale, washed and sliced
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

To make:
Blanch the kale in salted boiling water for 2 minutes. Drain, then return to a medium size pot or saute pan. Add the butter, cream, and nutmeg and cook over medium heat for approximately 5 minutes or until has reduced and thickened slightly. Season to taste and serve.

Chipotle & Cola Braised Sweet Potatoes

6 large sweet potatoes
12 oz Malta (can be purchased in the Latin aisle in most major grocery stores). Use cola or cream soda as a substitute. Look for brands made with real sugar as they cook down better).
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, chopped coursely
3 tablespoons adobo sauce (from chipotles)
4 tablespoons butter
kosher salt
black pepper

To make:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees

1. Scrub the sweet potatoes well, then dry and slice into thick 1" rounds. Layer into a baking dish.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the soda, broth, chipotle peppers, and adobo sauce. Pour over the sweet potatoes in the baking dish. Dot with pats of butter then sprinkle with salt and pepper.

3. Wrap the baking dish tightly with foil and bake for 20 minutes, remove from the oven and flip the sweet potatoes then return to the oven to bake for another 15 minutes. Check for seasoning and serve.

Roasted Plum Tomatoes with Garlic & Shallots

10 Whole Plum Tomatoes (fresh)
2 Whole Shallots
5 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds, crushed roughly
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
Kosher salt
Black pepper

To prepare:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees
1. Cut each tomato in half and spread in a single layer in a baking dish. Slice the shallots in half (leave peeled) and scatter into the dish along with the crushed garlic cloves.
2. Drizzle generously with olive oil. Sprinkle with crushed coriander, thyme, Kosher salt, and black pepper.
3. Roast in oven for 1 hour. Can be served hot, at room temperature, or cold.

Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake

Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake Recipe
Meet my Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake!

I first posted about this cake back in February 2008, just a few weeks after I started this blog, when my photography skills still justified that "mediocre" adjective in the tag line. The cake was a hit, though, and I think it's still the one about which I get the most passionate letters from readers.

Mostly people like me who spent their childhoods trying to snag as many of these amazing little cookies as they could from the family dessert platter. My giant cake version was a bit of a dream come true for them (and, obviously, for me).
Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake Recipe
Some of you may not know this, but my obsession with this cookie was so great that a couple years ago (back during the really bad photos days), I started a small dessert catering business centered entirely on these wonderful treats.

The cookies, if you haven't tried them, consist of three layers of thin almond sponge cake filled with raspberry and apricot jam, all topped off with a layer of bittersweet chocolate filling. My little business was a hit, and at my peak I found myself baking about 30 batches of them a week. This inspired me to start offering the full-size cake versions to local customers. I've since tapered off on all the baking (really, it was just too much even for me), but I still have a few loyal customers who request my cake each year for their birthdays and other family celebrations.

Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake Recipe
The recipe I'm featuring today is the version that I've tweaked and revamped over the past couple years. I've got this cake down to a science by now and figured out ways to make the process as easy and quick as possible. The round shape with three layers is also a little more versatile as it makes for a perfect birthday cake and can be decorated however you like.

Sometimes I use food coloring to dye marzipan, which I then mold into little bouquets of roses or cut into hearts and polka dots that I press into the sides. Depending on the occasion or recipient, I play with the colors in the layers (think shades of green for St. Patrick's or a lovely rainbow of pastels for Easter).

I even make a version filled with lemon curd and topped with white chocolate ganache, although we'll leave that for another post.

Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake Recipe
I served this cake on Sunday at my fake-Thanksgiving along with anise-scented poached pears and fresh kiwi sorbet; definitely not traditional holiday desserts by any means, but delicious and festive nonetheless. Because of the brilliant colors, I think this cake would be particularly suited for the Christmas or New Years dessert table. It certainly may not be the most elegant or the fanciest of my dessert recipes--no crushed macadamia nuts, saffron, or chardonnay in this one--but it's probably one of the most fun. And your guests who have sentimental attachment to the traditional rainbow cookies will absolutely appreciate it.

Oh and please don't think this is just about nostalgia and novelty! This cake really is damn good. Moist spongy layers rich with almond are accented by high-quality apricot and raspberry preserves (you'll want to splurge on a good brand like Sarabeths or maybe even something fancy and French. Of course, good ol' Smuckers works too!). The frosting is a simple bittersweet chocolate ganache which can be left plain or decorated as you like with white frosting and pearlized sugar beads.

However you end up serving it, you're guaranteed to end up with a cake that's festive enough to capture the imagination of the adults in the room, while simultaneously delighting the children.

Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake Recipe

Loved this recipe? Here are three other cake ideas you might like:

And let's connect so you can find out the next time I post! Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest, become a fan on Facebook, or sign up to receive my once-a-week e-mail updates.

Thanks so much for reading!

Italian Rainbow Cookie Cake
makes one 9" round layer cake

3 sticks butter, softened
1.5 cups granulated white sugar
6 large eggs
12 ounces of almond paste, grated with a box grater
1 tablespoon pure almond extract
1 cup milk
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
3 teaspoons baking powder
red food coloring
green food coloring
yellow food coloring
1/4 cup seedless raspberry jam
1/4 cup apricot preserves
For the ganache:
1 cup heavy cream
12 oz semisweet chocolate

Special equipment: Three 9" round pans, buttered and floured, with a circle of parchment paper on the bottom

1. In the base of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. About 5 minutes. Add the eggs and continue to beat for 3 more minutes. Add the grated almond paste, almond extract, and milk, and beat until well combined.

2. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder then slowly add to the almond paste batter and mix until combined.

3. Separate the mixture evenly into three bowls. Dye each bowl a different shade (one green, one yellow, one red).

4. Pour each color of the mixture into individual pans making sure to smooth out the top. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 20-25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes before inverting onto a cooling rack. Remove the parchment paper and let cool completely.

5. While the cake is cooling, prepare the ganache by heating 1 cup of heavy cream in a small saucepan just until bubbles start to form around the edge. Turn off the heat and pour over the chocolate in a large bowl. Stir continuously until melted completely and smooth. Let cool to room temperature.

Assembling the cake:

6. Start with the pink layer of the cake and spread with the raspberry jam until it nearly reaches the edges of the cake. Top with the yellow cake. Spread this with the apricot preserves. Top with the final green layer.

7. Use a spoon to pour the ganache over the cake, using an offset spatula to even the sides and make sure the cake is completely covered. Use as much ganache as you need. Let sit at room temperature in a cool spot for 1-2 hours until completely set. Decorate the cake as desired (optional).

Spiced Cranberry Orange Sauce

Growing up, cranberry sauce was one of the first things my mother tossed together on Thanksgiving morning, quickly combining a bag of fresh cranberries in a pot with a few cups of water and sugar. The sauce would bubble and pop until it was ready to be poured into the serving dish on our dining table to cool and wait for the other, more complicated, dishes to join it much later the same day.

Once I was tall enough to reach the stove, cranberry sauce duties were delegated my way and I would take much pride in the stirring and careful measurement of water and sugar. When the guests arrived, I’d eagerly offer them a serving of MY cranberry sauce to accompany the rest of the food on their plates. The fresh sauce was always wonderful, simultaneously tart and sweet, with a bit of burst from the whole berries. It was, I assumed, what everyone else was eating along with their Thanksgiving turkey.

It wasn’t until I was in Jr. High School that my parents brought my brother and me along on a volunteer trip to a soup kitchen near Times Square. It was just before Thanksgiving so were were serving turkey and all the fixings to the many homeless men and women who came through the hall that afternoon. My mom and I wore matching oversized Mondrian-patterned sweater and leggings (ahh, the 90s!), and I stuck close to her, simultaneously terrified of and curious about the scruffy-looking men who shouted at us for seconds. In the kitchen, a woman worked quickly with an electric can opener removing the tops of giant tins of jellied purple substance.

“What is that stuff?” I asked my mom as I watched the lady slice it into thick can-shaped circles that she layered onto an aluminum tray, refusing to believe her when she told me it was cranberry sauce. I had a difficult time reconciling the congealed maroon discs with the brilliant bubbly sauce I was so used to eating.

As always seems to happen when you first learn a word or see a color, I soon started to notice the cans everywhere—on television and in the lower shelves of the grocery store. I didn’t quite understand why anyone would eat something so ugly when the real version was so simple and no more expensive. The homeless people may not have had a choice—though they certainly deserved better—but I still don’t really understand why people would pick the illusory convenience of a can over the very real convenience (because it’s so easy!) of a fresh and homemade cranberry sauce.

If you read this blog, then I have no doubt that you agree with me on the fresh vs. canned debate (is it even a debate?), but I'd also love to encourage you to mix up the classic sauce this year.

For the past several years I’ve been experimenting with adding different flavors to my basic sauce recipe, and have recently settled on a new favorite: a lovely spicy-sweet combination of fresh ginger, citrus, and cinnamon that I love so much I admit to eating it by the spoonful while preparing the rest of the meal. And while cleaning up afterward. And while writing this blog post.

Instead of water, I used a combination of apple cider and orange juice, and at the end, I added a quick splash of 20-year strawberry-balsamic vinegar to round out the flavors (you can use your favorite flavored or plain balsamic for this). This sauce particularly complements my smoky Latin-style turkey recipe, but would work just as well with your favorite Thanksgiving dishes.

This sauce is the quickest thing to throw together and can be made well in advance of the big day so you won’t have to worry about freeing up one of the burners. It keeps in the fridge and can be served cold, hot, or room temperature. Leftovers are wonderful with roasted pork tenderloin or even over a simple flourless chocolate cake! I'm actually toying with the idea of tucking a few spoonfuls into a batch of buttery puff pastry, just to see what happens...

Love Always Order Dessert?
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Spiced Cranberry Orange Sauce
Notes of ginger, orange, and cinnamon elevate this Thanksgiving side dish beyond the ordinary.

3 cups apple cider
1 1/4 cup orange juice
1 cup sugar
Peel of one orange, cut into large strips
2 inches of fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced thickly
1 cinnamon stick
1 pound fresh cranberries
1 tablespoon aged balsamic vinegar (a raspberry, fig, or strawberry balsamic vinegar would work particularly well here)

To make:
In a medium saucepan, combine the apple cider, orange juice, and sugar and heat over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Add the orange peel, ginger, and cinnamon stick and let simmer for 10 minutes until reduced by a third.

Add the cranberries and stir. Let simmer over medium low heat for another 15-20 minutes until the berries burst and the sauce thickens slightly.

Remove from heat and stir in the vinegar. Let cool before serving. Can be made up to 3 days ahead and stored in the refrigerator in an air-tight container.
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