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Recent books:

Wicked by Gregory Maguire Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

When my friends hear me describe myself as an introvert, they’re always a bit surprised. Among my friends and coworkers, I’m outgoing and outspoken. But in a room full of people I don’t know? I’m suddenly as quiet as a mouse. Small talk isn’t my forte, so I really have to work hard to meet and engage with new people.

I felt very much like that when I arrived at my first foodie conference a couple of years ago. It was a little easier for me to reach out to people since it was guaranteed that everyone there would love food as much as I do. While everyone was amazing, and I made a lot of close foodie friends that trip, Katie from Katie’s Cucina was one of the people that I remembered the most. Her warm, bubbly personality shown through each and every day. She was always there with a smile.

I was excited for Katie when she announced that she was pregnant with her first child, and flattered when she asked me to guest post for her. Today’s that day. Today, you can find me over at Katie’s Cucina, where I’m sharing a Salad with Pear Vinaigrette. Head over, check out the salad recipe and Katie’s fabulous blog. And if you’re lucky, there may be a few photos of her new little one to fawn over. :-)

Salad with Pear Vinaigrette

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Attempting food photography with a little one. -Pasta with Walnuts, Parsley & Parmesan, on Books n' Cooks

Attempting food photography with a little one. -Pasta with Walnuts, Parsley & Parmesan, on Books n’ Cooks

My husband pretty much requires meat at dinner. Doesn’t matter if it’s red meat or chicken, but he’ll rarely feel full or satisfied without one or the other. Occasionally, I’ll test the waters with a veggie-based pasta or a seafood-based dish, but those options are rarely winners with him. This pasta dish is one of the few exceptions.

Whole wheat pasta makes this dish filling. Walnuts provide crunch; Parmesan provides some saltiness. And fresh parsley (or freeze-dried parsley in a pinch) is a burst of freshness. And I love that the ingredients are always in my pantry and the dish can be finished in roughly 20 minutes. Yes, this dish is definitely a winner.

The photo isn’t the prettiest – it came out darker than I had hoped, but I think the baby’s hand is a cute touch. :-)


Pasta with Walnuts, Parsley & Parmesan

Adapted from The Food You Love by Ellie Krieger

Serves 4


  • 2/3 c. walnuts, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 lb. whole wheat spaghetti
  • 1/2 c. fresh parsley, chopped (I’ve also used freeze-dried parsley if I don’t have any fresh parsley in the house)
  • 1/3 c . low-sodium chicken broth*
  • 1/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 3/4 c. shredded Parmesan cheese
*Make it vegetarian by using vegetable stock. 

Bring a large pot to a boil over medium heat, to cook the pasta in. When boiling, add the pasta and cook until desired doneness (for my hubby us, cooked throughout instead of al dante). Drain and return pasta to the pot it was cooked in. Hopefully by the time it’s done, the next steps are  done and you’ll be ready to assemble the dish.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet over medium-low heat, toast walnuts until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Move to a bowl and set aside. In the same skillet, saute garlic in olive oil until garlic is browned, about 5 minutes. Turn off heat (or if it’s going to be a little while until your pasta is done, reduce heat to lowest setting to keep oil warm).

Toss cooked pasta, chicken broth, garlic & olive oil, walnuts, parsley, and a little salt and pepper. Toss with 1/2 c. Parmesan cheese.

Portion out and top with remaining Parmesan.

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Sesame Seed Chicken

Sesame seed chicken. Every time this chicken is mentioned, my dad tells a story of when I home from college and my mom was away for 3 weeks caring for a sick relative. I tried to help out around the house while she was gone, mostly laundry and cooking. One night, I decided to make this sesame seed chicken and chaos ensued. My brother flipped out about how “sesame seed chicken is an appetizer” and not a meal. I’m not sure he actually ate that night, but he certainly emailed my mother, complaining about it. Needless to say, I’ve never made sesame seed chicken as a main meal again.

Actually, I don’t know if I ever made sesame seed chicken after that night, until Sophie’s birthday party last month. Apparently my brother traumatized me. Well, I won’t forget about this recipe again. It’s easy and it’s a great spin on a chicken fingers. I served it with the honey mayo (below), but feel free to add or substitute your favorite dipping sauce instead.

Sesame Seed Chicken with Honey Mayo

Books n’ Cooks

Ingredients for the Chicken:

  • 1 c. mayonnaise
  • 2 c. plain breadcrumbs
  • 1 c. sesame seeds
  • 1/4 c. dry mustard
  • 1/4 c. minced onions
  • 2-3 lbs. chicken breasts, fat trimmed and cut into 1-2 inch pieces

Ingredients for the Honey Mayo:

  • 2-3 Tbs. honey
  • 1 c. mayonnaise

Preheat oven to 475F.

Place mayo in a large ziplock bag. In another ziplock bag, combine breadcrumbs, sesame seeds, mustard, and onions. Toss chicken pieces in mayo to coat, and then in breadcrumb-sesame mixture.

Place on a baking sheet, in a single layer. Bake until browned and cooked throughout, about 15-20 minutes.

While chicken is cooking, mix honey and mayo in a small bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Serve chicken hot or at room temperature with honey may.

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Almond Orange Upside Down Cake

When the February/March issue of Fine Cooking came out, I was immediately drawn to the series on upside-down cakes. Despite being afraid of caramel, I knew that I had to make one of the cakes… the problem was, which one? I settled on the below Orange-Almond Upside-Down Cake but even before I made it, I had to know how the other ones would turn out. I invited my amazing sister-in-law, Lauren, over at Live, Dine, Party to bake one of these cakes along with me.

Lauren started her blog last year to chronicle her adventures in a new home, cooking, and entertaining. Lauren comes from a long line of amazing Italian cooks (ahem, Lauren, you still owe me a ravioli lesson!) and it shows in her food. Today, she’s sharing with you a Cranberry Streusel Upside-Down Cake. I know I just made this cake (two days ago, in fact), but I think Lauren has convinced me to dig that bag of frozen cranberries out of my freezer to give her version a shot.

While Lauren has me drooling over her cake, I was pleased with how my Orange-Almond Upside-Down Cake came out. It was one of the few desserts that I have made that was *really easy* to make look really pretty. I walked by it several times, trying to convince myself that I could dig in. But alas, I brought the cake, untouched, to work. Visually, the cake was impressive. And it tasted fantastic. The almond with the sweet burst of orange juice and the slight bitterness of the peel was an unexpected combination.

Prep Note: There’s a fair bit of prep to this recipe. I don’t mean hours of baking and resting, but a couple extra steps that are best done ahead of time (like toasting and grinding almonds) to make the assembly go quicker. 

Almond Orange Upside Down Cake

Orange-Almond Upside-Down Cake

Adapted from Fine Cooking No. 127 (p. 82)

Makes one 9-inch round cake

Ingredients for the Topping:

  • 4 Tbs. unsalted butter, plus more for pan
  • 2/3 c. granulated sugar
  • 3 small oranges
  • 1/2 c. slivered almonds

Ingredients for the Cake: 

  • 2/3 c. slivered almonds
  • 8 Tbs. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2/3 c. granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. almond extract
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 c. sour cream, at room temperature

Prep Work:

Preheat oven to 350 F. Toast the almonds for the cake (2/3 c.) for about 5 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool on baking sheet before pulsing in a food processor until finely ground.

Butter a 9-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper and butter again. Set aside.

Zest and juice 1 orange (or, if using large oranges, half an orange). You need 2 tsp. orange zest and 3 Tbs. freshly squeezed orange juice. Set aside.

Slice the remaining 2 oranges, as thin as you can get them. Discard ends. Then cut each slice into quarters. Set aside.

Make the Topping:

In a medium-sized pot, combine butter and sugar over medium heat. Stir occasionally, until caramel is just slightly darker in color than peanut butter. Watch carefully – I have a bad habit of ruining caramel by overcooking it. :-) When mixture is a light brown, slowly add orange juice. Stir until bubbling stops and orange juice has been completely incorporated, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat and pour immediately into the prepared pan. Allow to sit until cool enough to touch, about 5 minutes.

When cake is cool, arrange orange slices in caramel. Fill in extra spaces with slivered almonds.

Make the Cake:

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Scrape down sides of the bowl and add orange zest and almond extract until just combined. Scrape down sides of the bowl again and add eggs, one at a time. Add ground almonds, baking powder, and salt. Add half of sour cream, then half of flour. Add remaining sour cream and remaining flour, scraping down sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.

Pour batter into pan. Even out top with a spatula, taking care not to disturb the orange and almond slices.

Bake for 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and set on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife around edges of pan to loosen, and invert onto a serving cake and remove from pan. Allow to cool completely.

Serve hot or at room temperature.

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Sophie 1st Birthday

I can’t believe my sweet Sophie is already a year old. It seems like it was just yesterday that she was this teeny tiny baby who used to cuddle with us every evening in front of the tv. And now? Now she is inquisitive and walking all over the place. She loves to be scared and play peek-a-book. And she loves to read. She’ll carry around books for an entire evening sometimes. She likes to flip the pages, sometimes gnaw on the corners. Some nights she’ll sit patiently while we read a full book out loud to her. Other nights she’ll simply look at the photos, trading one book for another.

I absolutely love this photo of Sophie, where she’s surrounded by books and she’s “reading.”

20140117 - 4

Sophie frequently pulls all of the books off of her bookshelf, spread them out around her, and “read.” We have several well-worn board books and a few crumpled children’s books, including Dr. Seuss’ Alphabet Book, the inspiration for this party.


I decided not to go crazy with matching menu items to the first few letters of the alphabet. Instead, I planned a very simple menu and made name tags to match. I had originally hoped to have a large letter in the background, in color, with the name of the dish across the front, but I couldn’t figure out how to make that happen on our new computer. So instead, I used alphabet washbi tape to decorate the tags.

Sophie 1st Birthday

{Serves ~20}

Sesame Seed Chicken with Honey Mayo Dipping Sauce
Macaroni and Cheese Bites
Veggies & Dip
Fruit & Coconut Cream Dip
“ABC” Vanilla Cupcakes with Vanilla Frosting (topped with letters made out of royal icing)
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Strawberry Frozen Yogurt “Cupcakes” (for the babies)

Sweet Tea
Vanilla Pomegranate Sangria

Sophie 1st Birthday

Sophie 1st Birthday

For decorations, we put out Sophie’s favorite alphabet books, an alphabet abacus, and a few of the alphabet blocks that she received this past Christmas. I also added a frame that I received at my baby shower, with photos of Sophie as a newborn and at 3, 6, 9, and 12 months.

We did give Sophie the requisite smash cake (or in this case, cupcake), but she wasn’t really into it. She was curious when I showed her the cupcake, but didn’t like it when she got icing on her fingers. She wiped her fingers on the side of the high chair to get the frosting off, and shuttered every time she tasted the icing and cake. It’s a good thing we had some homemade strawberry frozen yogurt for the birthday girl to fall back on. :-)

Sophie 1st Birthday

Puzzle Favors

Finally, although we only had a few kids at the party, I wanted an activity for them as well as a favor to take home. These alphabet puzzles served as both. Cute, right?

Vendor Info:

Invitations & Matching Thank You Notes: MTipsy’s Etsy Shop
Alphabet Washbi Tape
:  used for accents on invitation/thank you note envelopes and on the tags to label the dishes, by Scotch (from Staples)
Cupcake Tower:
 Tutorial , supplies from local craft store (Michaels) 
Puzzle Favors
: Oriental Trading 

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Coconut Cream Dip

I know a lot of people aren’t fans of coconut, but I absolutely love it. The minute I saw this recipe, I started looking for an excuse to make it.

Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. This coconut cream fruit dip was a fabulous. The dip came together in about 5 minutes and was made completely in advance of our party. I’m still eating it, 3 days later, and it tastes as good as it did on day one. I upped the coconut flavor and added a bit of texture and garnish with some toasted coconut but you could leave it out if you prefer a smoother dip. Serve with your favorite fresh fruit (I used grapes, strawberries, mango and watermelon) for a healthy snack, light appetizer, or when the weather gets warmer, addition to a BBQ.

Note: Cream of coconut can be found in your regular grocery store, near the drinks and mixers.

Coconut Cream Fruit Dip

Adapted from My Baking Heart


  • 1-8oz. package Neufchatel cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 12 oz. cream of coconut
  • 6 oz. Cool Whip, thawed
  • 1 c. shredded coconut, lightly toasted

Whip cream cheese using a handheld mixer or stand mixer until smooth. Scrape down sides of bowl and add cream of coconut, mixing until completely combined. Fold in cool whip and almost all of the toasted coconut (reserve a couple tablespoons). Store in the fridge, and garnish with remaining toasted coconut right before serving.

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A few weeks ago, I hosted a brunch for a few friends. It had been a while since we’d gotten to catch up and since our babies had a play date. Since dinner is tough for baby bedtimes and going out can be a challenge with fussing and naptime, brunch has become our new go-to to hang out with friends. It helps that it’s a super easy meal to prepare, as we usually mix store-bought items with homemade items.

Frittata 3

Our most recent brunch menu looked like this:

Fresh Fruit
Vanilla Yogurt and Dark Chocolate Cherry Coconut Granola
Mushroom, Leek & Fontina Frittata (below)
Coffee, Tea & Orange Juice

The overall meal was fairly light and healthy. Friends brought fresh fruit and muffins, although you can certainly make your own (these strawberry muffins are a favorite of mine). I made the granola a day ahead and the frittata took under 30 minutes to prepare and get into the oven. This is definitely a recipe I’ll be keeping in my back pocket for future brunches.

Frittata 4

Mushroom, Leek & Fontina Frittata

Adapted from Bon Appetit

Serves 6


  • 2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2-3 medium leeks, white and green parts only, chopped
  • 8 oz. crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 12 large eggs
  • 1/2 c. sour cream (low-fat is fine)
  • 2 Tbs. chopped fresh parsley
  • 3/4 c. shredded Fontina cheese, divided
  • kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350°F.

While oven is preheating, heat 1 Tbs. olive oil in a 10-12 inch oven-proof skillet over medium heat. Add leeks and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and continue cooking until mushrooms are slightly browned and no liquid remains in the pan, about 10 minutes.

As mushrooms are cooking, whisk together eggs, sour cream and parsley. Stir in 1/2 c. of the cheese and season with salt and pepper.

Increase heat on stove to medium-high and add remaining 1 Tbs. olive oil. Add egg mixture and allow to cook without touching until edges are starting to set, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top of the frittata and transfer skillet to the preheated oven. Bake until cooked throughout and edges are golden brown, 25-30 minutes.

Remove from oven and serve hot or at room temperature.

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Dark Chocolate Cherry & Coconut Granola

I’ve never been a big breakfast eater – bagels and bacon, I could do. Otherwise, it was a granola bar on the go, a couple of hours after I woke up. However, over the past several years, I’ve come to need a decent breakfast in the mornings. My criteria: quick and portable (because I pack it and eat it as I’m reading email at work), and full of staying power. I still love my bagels, but I need something with protein to keep me full until lunch time. One of my go-to breakfasts has become homemade granola and yogurt.

If I’m looking for quick, why, do you ask, would I use homemade granola? First, it is quick. In under 30 minutes, I can have a huge batch of granola that will last for a couple of weeks (because that’s how long it takes me to eat it – it will stay fresh longer!). But more importantly, store-bought granola doesn’t hold a candle to homemade granola. The homemade stuff is just sooooo much better. I love to make a batch and pack it with extras of my favorite ingredients – such as nuts and coconut. The homemade version is full of flavor and just slightly soft. After breakfast, hide the jar – handfuls might go missing at snack-time throughout the day.

Looking for more granola recipes? Try Honey Almond Granola or this Nutty Granola.

Dark Chocolate Cherry Coconut Granola

Makes 7 Cups

Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook via Annie’s Eats


  • 1 c. shredded sweetened or unsweetened coconut
  • 2/3 c. coarsely chopped walnuts (or almonds)
  • 3 c. old fashioned rolled oats
  • 2 Tbs. veggie oil
  • 1/2 c. honey
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 c. dried cherries (or, in a pinch, cranberries)
  • 4-6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped (or chips)

Preheat oven to 325F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, toss coconut, nuts, oats, oil, honey, cinnamon and salt until well combined. Spread onto prepared baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.

If your granola is golden and lightly toasted, remove from oven. If it’s not (and mine wasn’t), raise the temperature to 350F and cook for another 5-7 minutes, until golden.

Remove from oven. Sprinkle dried cherries on top and mix in. Spread granola back out, evenly, onto baking sheet. Press down gently, so that granola is in one big piece. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Break into pieces. Toss with chopped chocolate.

Store in an airtight container.

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MWF.Seeking.BFFBook Review:

MWF Seeking BFF: My Year Long Search For A New Best Friend

By Rachel Bertsche

After finishing school, Rachel Bertsche moves to Chicago with her new husband to start a life together. She has friends, many through her husband, but she can’t call any of them her best friend.That is, there isn’t one woman that she would ask to go out at a moment’s notice. None of them are confidants, with whom she can vent about her husband, talk about her family, etc. Only her childhood BFFs fit those roles, and they live a plane ride away.

In this situation, Bertsche decides to embark on a year-long quest to find a best friend in Chicago. She goes on 52 girl-dates with women she meets – some acquaintances, some blind girl-dates set up by friends, and some complete strangers met through social networking sites, classes, and an essay she publishes. MWF Seeking BFF chronicles her journey to finding close friendships in Chicago, and during this quest, her realization that the meaning of a “best friend” is no longer the same as when she was a child.

Review & Recommendation: When this book was chosen for my book club, I was looking forward to reading it. It sounded like something light but interesting. However, I was disappointed in the book. Interspersed with Bertsche’s story of her 52 dates are antidotes from her research on friendship. Not only did it make it difficult to become engaged in her story, but it made her sound a bit desperate and pitiful. I think many of us, myself included, who moved to a new place after graduating college can relate to Bertsche’s situation – it’s hard to meet new people and develop those friendships into relationships that would qualify as BFFs. I can relate. I can. Following college, I moved to a new state where I knew nobody. It took me  well over a year to get to know the people that are now some of my best friends. But for me, Bertsche’s research – which was brought up multiple times throughout the book – seemed to be used to justify her search and to remind the reader that she was in fact doing something that would make her happier and healthier. Every time this research was mentioned, I felt like Bertsche’s insecurities were shining through and that she was justifying and rejustifying her quest to the reader. For me, it significantly detracked from her story.

That being said, it was interesting of how her Bertsche’s ideas of a best friend evolved over the course of her year long quest. She came to realize that a new BFF wouldn’t be the same ones she’s had since grade school. This new friend could be a little older or younger than her, or at a different point in their life (single or married, with kids or not). It’s definitely a change from what one might feel if they were still in school.

I don’t think MWF Seeking BFF is for everyone, but I think that woman in Bertsche’s situation, or who have ever been in her situation, would enjoy the book and relate well to Bertsche’s search. However, I do think it could have been better written and better organized so as not to detrack from the story and to display Bertsche in a better light.

Grade: B-

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A little late, but better late than never!

We spent Christmas this year with my family up north. We had a great week of visiting and food. This year, the theme was simple. We wanted to enjoy time with family rather than spending so much time in the kitchen. And I wanted to make sure that the food was as good as in the past, and the menus elegant. Here’s what we came up with.

Super Simple Christmas Eve Menu
{for 7}

1st Course: Potato Leek Soup

Entree: Crab Cakes with Creole Meuniere Sauce, Roasted Green Beans with Lemon, Pine Nuts & Parmigiano, and Crescent Rolls

Christmas Menu
{for 20}

Appetizers: Spinach and Artichoke Dip with Crackers, Antipasto Platter

Dinner: Salad with Goat Cheese Purses; Ham; Horseradish-Crusted Prime Rib with Horseradish Sauce; Twice Baked Potato Casserole; Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Carrots, and Cauliflower; Spinach Salad; Thyme Dinner Rolls; Poppy Seed Dinner Rolls

Dessert: Coconut Cream Meringue Cake

Xmas 2013


Xmas 2013



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