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Hot chocolate cookies

A pile of hot chocolate cookies on a white plate. You can see a cooling rack with more cookies and a string of holiday lights in the background

These hot chocolate cookies are the direct result of my inability to leave well enough alone. 

You remember the chocolate crinkle cookies from Cookie Week last year? The ones I said were perfect as-is, and more or less promised not to mess with?

Yeah…that lasted.

I wanted to make a cookie inspired by all the best parts of hot chocolate, and in my defense, that recipe is the perfect place to start. It’s richly chocolatey, has the sort of dissolving texture I always associate with drinks, AND it all comes together in one bowl. I couldn’t resist.

Six cookies on a cooling rack. The one in the upper right has had two bites taken out of it.

All I had to do was figure out how to make the cookies a little more like hot chocolate, and a little less like being punched in the face by a lava cake. 

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10 easy last-minute Christmas gift recipes

With all the hand-wringing about the much-vaunted supply chain issues, I think it’s fair to say that if you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping by this point you might be feeling the first twinges of panic. 

Or maybe that’s just me projecting. 

Either way, I know I feel better when I have a few ideas in my back pocket if the drop-dead shipping deadline sails past and I still have a few people to check off my list. 

Aged Eggnog – Alton Brown

Image from AltonBrown.com

This is as close as I’ve ever come to replicating the infamous eggnog Mr. Chestnut brings to my grandmother’s Christmas celebration every year. It’s smooth and rich and deceptively potent – and it comes together in ten minutes, makes three quarts, and keeps absolutely forever. The recipe says you can age it for up to a year, but I’ve never been that brave. 

This recipe calls for raw egg yolks. In theory, it contains enough alcohol to kill off any bacteria that might be lurking therein (and with modern egg processing, your chances of getting salmonella from undercooked eggs are about 1 in 20,000), but if you’re gifting to someone older or immunocompromised I would recommend playing it safe and using pasteurized egg yolks, or pasteurizing your own eggs at home

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Turkey pot pie

A 3/4 view into a cast iron pan of turkey pot pie topped with nine biscuits. A wooden spoon has been stuck into the back of the pot, as if it had just been carried to the table for serving.

The first time I made this turkey pot pie was the second time I’d spent a holiday with my now-husband’s family. I’d driven up the day after Thanksgiving to spend the rest of the weekend with everyone in Asheville, and, given that I’d missed out on all the cooking from the day before, I volunteered to throw something together out of the leftovers. Pot pie seemed the obvious choice. 

We had all the right ingredients – leftover turkey and stock, the tail ends of the carrots, celery, and onions, a few handfuls of mushrooms, and the bag of long-forgotten frozen peas that everyone has stashed in the freezer, just in case. 

An overhead view of all the ingredients needed to make turkey pot pie. There is a bunch of celery, a cardboard container of sliced mushrooms, a small bowl of diced carrots, a small bowl of diced onions, a small bowl of diced celery, a head of garlic, a bowl of shredded turkey, half a stick of butter, and a bunch of thyme

I started by throwing together a batch of biscuit dough – at this point I no longer remember which one, since my biscuit allegiances shift pretty rapidly. I probably made whatever was my favorite at the time and chucked it in the fridge while I put everything else together. Whatever biscuit you choose will be fine (yes, even frozen or refrigerated) – they aren’t the star of the show here, especially since they soak up the stew as they bake. Just please don’t use pie crust – I know it’s traditional, but the ratio of pastry to pot-pie filling is all wrong. 

Now, to the filling. 

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Apple spice layer cake

A slice of cake stands on a plate next to a fork. You can clearly see chunks of apples bound by caramel between each layer of cake. The rest of the cake sits on a white stand in the background, with a few green apples scattered around it.

This apple spice cake is, no lie, the best cake I’ve ever made. And I’m not just saying that because I developed the recipe for my wedding cake – I’ve made it this week for the blog (and for Jackson to share with his co-workers), and I’m making it again next week for Thanksgiving dessert. 

It’s the most perfect fall dessert I can imagine – moist but not dense cake that has a pronounced, but not cloying, spice presence, punched up with cinnamon and apple scented caramel, sauteed apples, and a brown butter bourbon buttercream that I would eat straight off a spoon. 

Dry and wet ingredients are being whisked together in a large glass bowl. You can see shredded apple waiting to be added in the background.

Of course, eating it was the easy part. Figuring out how to make it was a little harder. 

Hang onto your butts. It’s going to be a long one. 

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Fall grain salad with mushrooms

A serving bowl of salad sits on a wooden cutting board with a serving spoon. There is a pile of plates and forks visible in the background.

Last year (ed. note: it was 2019), I was lucky enough to find a copy of Ilene Rosen’s Saladish at a little publisher’s overstock bookstore in Athens. I was thrilled. The book had been on my wishlist forever. And while I can’t say that it’s gone into heavy rotation – I’m too easily distracted for that – it is full of exactly the sort of food I love to cook. Simple, vegetable-forward one-bowl meals and grain salads with lots of color and texture. 

Which means, of course, that I couldn’t leave well enough alone. 

Barley with Many Mushrooms was probably the second or third recipe I tried out of the book and the first that I had an immediate desire to mess with. Let me be clear – there is absolutely nothing wrong with the recipe as written. It’s a beautifully balanced grain salad that keeps forever for lunches or make-ahead dinners…

…but the amount of dishes it produced bothered me. 

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Roasted tomato soup

A bowl of tomato soup sits on a plate with two triangles of grilled cheese. A spoon rests in the bowl of soup, as if someone stepped away briefly to grab a drink.

Sometimes a recipe comes to you fully formed and perfect – my grandmother’s pimento cheese, the tiny meatballs the church ladies bring to the potluck every fourth Sunday, or the cheese dip from Taqueria del Sol. And sometimes, as is the case with this roasted tomato soup, a recipe is the culmination of many years of tweaking and experimentation – something that is perfect right up until the next time you decide to try just one more little thing. 

I’ve always been picky about tomato soup. So many (*cough* Campbells *cough*) have a slick, slippery sweetness that reminds me of melted, slightly vegetal plastic. I need my soup to taste richly of tomato, with a thick, spoonable consistency that sits somewhere between a restaurant-style salsa and a melted milkshake. I want something you can sip from a mug but will still cling thickly to dipped bites of grilled cheese. 

Two hands break up a canned tomato over a strainer set inside a glass bowl. You can see that the seeds are being scraped out of the tomato shell.

Oh, and I want it to come together from pantry staples and canned tomatoes – because ho wants tomato soup in late summer, when fresh tomatoes are actually worth eating? 

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Hearty apple muffins

6 muffins sit on a cutting board. The closest muffin has been cut in half so apple chunks in the crumb are clearly visible. There is an empty plate to the right of the cutting board, and a bowl of out-of-focus apples in the background.

These apple muffins were born of spite. 

It’s a weird way to come up with a recipe, I know, but let me explain. 

A bowl full of the dry ingredients for the muffins - flour, oat bran, leavening, and spices. A whisk rests on the edge of the bowl, clearly about to start mixing everything together.

I want to take you back to 2018 – I’m three weeks into my culinary school externship at a bakery in Atlanta, just starting to feel like I have my feet under me. I’m starting to understand where things are and how things work. It’s not a big operation – we have three or four people in the kitchen on the production shift – and the day starts by getting your assignments off the whiteboard with the production lists.  

My list that day was short. I had brownies and biscuits, which were frequent fliers on my production list, and a new item: morning glory muffins. I was feeling pretty good – I’m fast in the kitchen, and with such a short production list I had visions of going home early and knocking out a bunch of my externship homework. 

And then I saw the recipe for the muffins. 

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Wedding cake diaries: finding my perfect spice cake

If you’re subscribed to the email newsletter (and I hope you are – we have fun over there), you know that I’ve barely been in town long enough to catch my breath before turning around and heading back out again. The reasons for all this travel couldn’t be happier, but the near-constant nature of it has been a bit draining and has made my normal schedule of recipe development more or less impossible. In order to get around this, I’m trying something new – video!

This week, I tested two different spice cake bases (the carrot cake from Gimme Some Oven and the spice cake from Sally’s Baking Addiction), reworked the one I liked best to work with brown butter, and then fiddled around with the spice blend until I got something that made my heart sing. There were, of course, a bunch of mishaps along the way – some helpful and some less so – but I hope you enjoy a very real glimpse of what cooking with me really looks like.

Check back next week for another video – I’m up to my ears in caramel getting the filling right!

Multigrain country table bread

This bread was an accident, really. I’ve been trying to develop a rustic, seedy whole wheat sandwich bread for a very specific open-face sandwich, and I can’t say it’s going all that well. The bread keeps coming out delicate and fluffy instead of toothsome and chewy, the loaves rise too aggressively, and I can’t find commercial cracked wheat to test against my homemade stuff to make sure it works the way I say it will. 

In short, I was getting frustrated – until I tried the bread warm. 

It was wonderfully fluffy, just like a dinner roll, with added interest and chew from the seedy, grainy bits – and tasting it instantly rocketed me back to memories of birthday dinners at Longhorn Steakhouse, filling up too early on the warm sliced bread they served with butter before the meal. 

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Spicy grapefruit margarita mocktail

The alchemy of cocktails fascinates me – like cooking, it takes science, skill and technique to bring seemingly disparate elements into balance. Unlike cooking, I know almost nothing about it. And since I’m an incurable lightweight, learning and iteration is a little harder.

For context, half a drink is my happy place. 

And yet I still want to be part of the party – I want something interesting and pretty to sip while sitting around with friends, or a drink with dinner that doesn’t make me feel like so much an outsider. I want something that gives me the look and experience of a cocktail, without the danger of putting me on my ass half an hour in. 

It’s why I’ve been excited to start seeing mocktail or zero-proof options on local bar menus – and also why I’ve spent two weeks trying to perfect one for myself. Because although it seems straightforward, nailing a mocktail is actually surprisingly difficult. 

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Jessi Spell

A culinary degree and two years of professional experience has not stopped Jessi from making stupid mistakes – she just makes them more efficiently. She habitually reads cookbooks before bed, loses track of time on Wikipedia, and yells at cooking shows like dads watching football. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Jackson, five plants, and more cookbooks than a 600 square foot studio should hold.


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