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10 Ways To Up Your Salad Game This Summer Image

Looking for a new, healthful yet satisfying option for lunch or a light dinner? Skip the old standbys (Caesars, wedges, mixed greens) and upgrade your salad bowl with these 10 tips.

This Mexican tortilla salad features jicama in a tangy dressing. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Holmes Haddad

This Mexican tortilla salad features jicama in a tangy dressing. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Holmes Haddad

Make your own salad dressings.

Homemade dressings put store-bought bottles to shame; the flavor is unparalleled. And they’re easy to make, especially if you have a blender of any kind or a food processor on hand. (It’s also easy to bolster the nutrition level by adding a tablespoon of chia seeds or flaxseeds.) Try matching your dressing to a salad based on its regional or seasonal ingredients. Making a Mexican tortilla salad? Whip up a batch of cilantro, lime and pumpkin-seed dressing (recipe below). Or liven up a chilly day with hazelnut-orange dressing over winter greens such as radicchio.

Fresh romaine hearts can stand up to heavier salad dressings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Holmes Haddad

Fresh romaine hearts can stand up to heavier salad dressings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Holmes Haddad

Practice the golden rule of salads.

The lighter the lettuce, the lighter the dressing. That means pairing hearty dressings such as Caesar, lemon-buttermilk and creamy ranch with heavier greens such as romaine, kale and cabbage. Save the more delicate mâche and baby lettuce for lightweight dressings such as lemon-garlic vinaigrette or three-herb vinaigrette.

Crunchy nuts and seeds can add a whole new dimension to your salad. Credit: Copyright 2015

Crunchy nuts and seeds can add a whole new dimension to your salad. Credit: Copyright 2015

Add crunch with a handful of nuts.

From peanuts, walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts to pecans, macadamias and cashews, nuts can bring a burst of flavor and texture to an ordinary bowl of greens, elevating it from blah to wow. Toasting them is an easy step that boosts their flavor immensely: Just place a pan over high heat, add the nuts and toast for 1 to 2 minutes while shaking the pan (be careful not to burn them). Seeds offer a similar crunch: sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are easy to find and full of flavor.

Take a day off from the olive: nut oils bring an unexpected layer of flavor to salad dressings. Credit: Copyright 2015

Take a day off from the olive: Nut oils bring an unexpected layer of flavor to salad dressings. Credit: Copyright 2015

Add an unusual oil.

Give a flavor and nutrition boost to your salad by drizzling it with walnut, pecan or hazelnut oil. Pistachio oil drizzled over steamed asparagus is sublime. (Note that nut oils are highly sensitive to light and heat, so store them in the refrigerator.) Meanwhile, avocado oil is a neutral, healthy option that can be substituted for canola oil.

Swap ordinary proteins for tangy cheeses, sliced prosciutto or roasted chickpeas. Credit: Copyright 2015

Swap ordinary proteins for tangy cheeses, sliced prosciutto or roasted chickpeas. Credit: Copyright 2015

Punch up the proteins.

Ditch the roasted chicken breast and try a new source of protein: Roasted chickpeas, marinated feta, roasted pork loin and broiled shrimp make quick and easy alternatives. Chop up leftover ingredients from a weekend cookout — grilled steak, barbecued chicken, grilled peppers or mushrooms — and toss with a hearty lettuce such as romaine.

Broccoli slaw makes for a quick, healthy and hearty lunch. Credit: Copyright 2015

Broccoli slaw makes for a quick, healthy and hearty lunch. Credit: Copyright 2015

Make a side salad the main dish.

Sides like coleslaw can easily achieve main-course status with the addition of a few ingredients. Tossed with roasted turkey and a few tablespoons of homemade poppyseed dressing, chopped or shredded broccoli and roasted walnuts make a hearty, portable lunch or quick dinner. Prepackaged, shredded veggies are available in nearly every grocery store if you’re in a time pinch.

Sweet fruit balances out the bitter and salty elements of a salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kitchen Gardeners International/

Sweet fruit balances out the bitter and salty elements of a salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kitchen Gardeners International/

Add fresh fruit.

Tomatoes are the gold standard, but fresh orange segments, sliced pears and grapes add brightness and seasonality to a salad. Sliced strawberries are perfect paired with peppery arugula and balsamic vinegar, while hunks of fresh papaya offer a sweet contrast to crunchy green cabbage. In summer, sliced peaches make a great counterbalance to creamy mozzarella.

Acid is key for any salad dressing, be it a drizzle of vinegar or a tablespoon of fresh lime juice. Credit: Copyright 2015

Acid is key for any salad dressing, be it a drizzle of vinegar or a tablespoon of fresh lime juice. Credit: Copyright 2015

Remember: A is for acid.

An often-overlooked but key salad ingredient is acid, whether in the form of vinegar, citrus juice, soy sauce or pickled vegetables. Just a few tablespoons of high-quality balsamic vinegar or rice vinegar or a squeeze of fresh lemon can brighten the flavor of any salad. And pickled veggies, from kimchi to plain old cucumber pickles, can add oomph to a can of tuna or a plain roasted chicken breast.

With a bit of heat, your salad will sizzle. Credit: Copyright 2015

With a bit of heat, your salad will sizzle. Credit: Copyright 2015

Spice things up.

Adding chili peppers to a salad or its dressing gives a big flavor boost. Chopped jalapeños, raw or pickled, are a must for Mexican-style salads; you could also try a chipotle dressing. Or add sliced red Thai peppers to cabbage, peanuts and rice vinegar for an Asian flavor.

This vibrant spring salad from cookbook author Maria Speck combines asparagus and kamut. Credit: Copyright 2015 Erin Kunkel, from Simply Ancient Grains by Maria Speck, Ten Speed Press

This vibrant spring salad from cookbook author Maria Speck combines asparagus and kamut. Credit: Copyright 2015 Erin Kunkel, from “Simply Ancient Grains” by Maria Speck, Ten Speed Press

Expand the definition of “salad.”

Go beyond greens to incorporate grains like quinoa, farro and bulgur wheat. Carbs such as rice, couscous and orzo add a little bulk and act as a neutral base for other flavors. Pasta comes in so many varieties these days that even gluten-free eaters can enjoy pasta salad. Cooked vegetables can also star: Brussels sprouts, asparagus and roasted beets become salads with the addition of just one or two other ingredients, such as roasted nuts, shaved ricotta salata or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. (Time-saver tip: you can cook the grains on the weekend so that they’re ready to go for a weeknight supper.)

Mexican Salad With Cilantro, Lime and Pumpkin Seed Dressing

Note: This is an easy salad that pairs crisp lettuce and jicama with a tangy, satisfying dressing. Add cooked chicken or a handful of shrimp for a more substantial meal.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: Serves 4

2 1/2 cups chopped romaine lettuce (about 2 large heads)
1 large jicama, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch pieces
3/4 cup thinly sliced radishes (about 10)
1 cup Cilantro, Lime and Pumpkin-Seed Dressing (see recipe below)
1/2 ripe avocado, diced
1/2 cup tortilla chips, crushed, for serving (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1. In a large bowl, combine the lettuce, jicama and radishes.

2. Add the dressing and gently toss to mix. Add the avocado and tortilla chips and gently toss again.

3. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Cilantro, Lime and Pumpkin-Seed Dressing
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 1/4 cups

1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup avocado oil (canola oil can be substituted)
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (about 4 limes)
2 small cloves garlic, peeled
1 medium jalapeño pepper, halved and seeded
1/4 cup unsalted, roasted pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt

1. Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.

2. Season to taste with salt. The dressing will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Main photo: Prosciutto over baby spring greens. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Holmes Haddad

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Apple Pie and Politics at ‘Dough for Obama’ Event Image

Writer Joyce Maynard’s philosophy is that pie brings people together.

Pie certainly brought people together  Sept. 30 when more than 15 women and a couple of men gathered at Maynard’s Marin County, Calif., home to learn how to make pie and raise money for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

What Maynard dubbed “Dough for Obama” broke down into two groups — pie makers and eaters — and each group donated to the campaign to spend an unusually warm autumn afternoon making pies, eating pies and talking politics.

Gathering around Maynard’s worn wooden table, guests absorbed her step-by-step instructions on how to make her famous apple pie and then tried their hand at it. Women ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s (and who are artists, writers, photographers, health care workers and a police detective) discussed what brought them together: their political passion, Maynard and their love of pie. For some, it was the first pie they had ever made, and the lure of a hands-on instruction was irresistible.

A tradition of pie and politics

This wasn’t Maynard’s first pie party. The parties started in 2000 after Maynard donated a pie-making lesson to her school’s auction. The $2,000 winning bid from Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who bought it for his wife, attracted the attention of the local paper. When a journalist asked Maynard whether she was planning any more pie parties, she replied, “I’m baking to defeat Bush.”

She then promptly planned a party to raise money for Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign. Since that day, she has taught more than 1,000 people how to make pie while raising money for Gore, Sen. John Kerry and Obama. She also has hosted a daylong baking marathon to benefit victims of the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

Sharing pie wisdom

Maynard’s love of pie is bittersweet. Her mother always told her, “If I ever get a brain tumor I won’t count calories.” In 1989, doctors diagnosed Maynard’s mother with a brain tumor and gave her only weeks to live, so Maynard moved in with her and baked for her mom and her friends.

“Making pie was a comfort to me,” she said.

After her mother passed away and Maynard planned her first Thanksgiving without her kids and ex-husband, she invited friends over to learn how to make pie. Her role as pie-making guru had begun.

The pie lesson that September afternoon was sprinkled with stories and reassuring tips. Maynard’s demonstration was straightforward:

  • To make the filling, use tart, firm apples like Granny Smith, never red delicious.
  • Do not add too much sugar (Maynard uses only a couple of tablespoons).
  • Cut the apples into fairly large pieces.
  • To make the perfect crust use an even mix of shortening and butter.

Maynard loves talking pie. Ever wonder about those airy pies with huge domed tops that look like applesauce when you cut into them? The apples are cut too small. (“I believe in a nice, high pie,” she says.) Her secret pie ingredient? Tapioca. Sprinkle it on the bottom crust before the apples are added to prevent a soggy crust. And she recommends a glass pie dish because it distributes heat more evenly and you can see when the crust is done.

Her teaching is kind, patient and encouraging to first-time bakers and experienced ones. When transferring the top crust from the parchment paper to the pie Maynard said, “Now is moment that requires dive-in courage.”


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Apple pie at the "Dough for Obama" event. Credit: Laura Holmes-Haddad

Maynard’s philosophy puts less emphasis on looks and more on taste. “Mine is not a pretty pie; you can tell it’s made by hand,” she said.

Singer Linda Ronstadt, an avid baker and friend of Maynard’s, surprised everyone by joining the party. Her advice? “Make a pie every day for a week to practice.”

Joyce Maynard’s Apple Pie

Joyce likes to say, “It’s not about the recipe; it’s how you make the pie.” Although she doesn’t use a set recipe, I used her measurements and my notes from the party to create this recipe. This is an adaptation, but it’s the closest thing to being in the kitchen with her!

Makes two 9-inch pie crusts

For the filling:

5-6 crisp apples, such as Granny Smith or Gravenstein

sugar, to taste

cinnamon, to taste (about ½ teaspoon)

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)

2-3 tablespoons instant tapioca

For the crust:

3 cups all-purpose flour

¾ teaspoon salt

1 stick cold unsalted butter (plus a little)

½ cup cold shortening (Joyce uses Crisco brand)

1-4 tablespoons ice water

3 tablespoons milk


peeler or paring knife

pastry blender

parchment paper or waxed paper

rolling pin

pie dish (preferably glass)

pastry brush

measuring cup

measuring spoons


1. Peel the apples and cut them in medium-sized, fat slices.

2. In a mixing bowl combine the apples with the lemon juice (if using), a handful of sugar (depending on how sweet you like it) and a sprinkling of cinnamon. (If you’re not sure if you have enough apple slices, pour them in the pie dish; add more apples if necessary to make a nice, high pie.) Set aside.

3. Before you make the crust, assemble everything you need because once you start you want to work quickly to keep the dough as cold as possible. In a large mixing bowl combine the flour and salt.

4. Cut the butter and shortening into pieces.

5. Add the butter and shortening and using a pastry blender or two forks cut it into the flour until you see little pellets of butter and shortening.

6. Making a well, add 1 tablespoon of ice water and gently mix it in with half the flour using your fingers. (You will make the top crust first.) If the dough seems dry add 1 more tablespoon ice water. The dough should come together but not be too moist or too ragged.

7. Once it sticks together transfer the dough to a parchment or waxed paper-lined counter-top or table. Lightly flour a rolling pin and roll the crust into about ¼-inch thick circle. If it sticks, add a light dusting of flour. You want to handle the dough as little as possible and work quickly to prevent the butter and shortening from melting; that makes a tougher dough. Place the pie pan over the crust and gently flip it over into the pie dish.

8. Press the dough into the pan and cut off any overhanging dough.

9. Sprinkle the bottom crust with tapioca. Set aside while you make the top crust. (If it’s a hot day it’s best to stick it in the refrigerator.)

10. Make the second crust: Add a tablespoon of ice water to remaining flour mixture and gently mix it together until a dough forms, adding more ice water as needed, a tablespoon at a time. Transfer the dough to a parchment or waxed paper-lined counter-top or table and repeat the rolling process listed above.

11. To assemble the pie: Add the apple mixture to the pie dish. In one swift motion carefully flip the bottom crust over the top of the apples. If your aim is off, don’t worry; just adjust the crust and patch any tears or holes. Crimp the edges of the two crusts, sealing them. Using a pastry brush, brush the top of the pie with a little milk and sprinkle with a little sugar. With a sharp knife cut four slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape.

12. Bake the pie at 425 F for 50 to 60 minutes until golden brown and bubbling.

Photo: Apple pie from Joyce Maynard’s “Dough for Obama” event. Credit: Laura Holmes-Haddad

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Leftovers Apple Cake Image

Patience is not one of my virtues (anyone who knows me will confirm this). But cooking with a toddler requires nothing but. Just when I’d resisted the temptation to open the oven and peek at a cake or incorporate the egg whites too quickly, my daughter dragged her stepstool into the kitchen.

To my 3-year-old daughter, Penelope, cooking and eating should — and do — happen simultaneously. She loves nothing more than dumping the flour in while the butter and eggs are still in the early stages of mixing, dipping her finger into a half-prepared cake batter, tasting the raspberries before they become jam and munching on carrots that were intended for the spaghetti sauce. All of this is followed by, “Is it ready yet?” The only sign of patience from Penelope is a neat row of 14 chocolate chips, placed one by one, on the kitchen counter.

Penelope’s culinary convictions don’t stop there. The real test of my patience begins when I’ve asked what she would like for dinner. A choice is made, but when she sits down to eat she declares that she asked for spaghetti — thin spaghetti, in fact. And no, she doesn’t like tomato sauce (which she adored only yesterday). I’ve started uttering the words I dreaded hearing from my own mom growing up — “This is not a restaurant.” To which her response was to open her own “restaurant” in her kid-sized play kitchen, complete with order pad. “What would you like at Penelope’s restaurant?” she asked sweetly, balancing a tray of plastic eggs and wooden sausages.

Penelope leftovers

All of this has led to my latest culinary challenge: dealing with the leftovers that are created by Penelope’s ever-changing food moods, as I like to call them. She might point excitedly to the bright yellow bananas in the grocery store, encouraging me to buy the whole bunch, but eat them at home? The horror. Ditto for strawberries, blueberries, and spinach from the farmers market.

This leaves me with two options: to never take her to the grocery store or farmers market (impractical on all counts, and too depressing to contemplate) or get creative with “Penelope leftovers.” I have stuck with option two, creating smoothies, cakes, cookies and casseroles when faced with the sadly neglected foods that don’t satisfy her palate this week. I’ve tried to bribe, cajole, encourage and suggest, but truly there is nothing you can do to change a 3-year-old’s mind about a food she’s declared public enemy No. 1. As any self-help book will tell you, you have to change.

This cinnamon-scented apple cake was created out of desperation: mounds of leftover apples haunted my refrigerator last month with which I was determined to make something other than applesauce. (Since then, apples have taken top position in Penelope’s daily diet. Check back next month, I’m sure apples will have fallen out of favor and blueberries will be the star of this cake.) This cake is for bakers and non-bakers alike; it’s a buttery, slightly dense cake that takes little time to whip up and will use up any apples you have lying around. And the whole wheat flour and fairly low sugar content erase any guilt you might feel about feeding this to your toddler (or husband) for a few days. In short, you need little patience to pull this one off.

Leftover Apple Cake

Serves about 12


2 cups sweet, crisp apples, cut into ¼ cubes (peel on)
½ lemon
1¼ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1¼ cups whole-wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
½ cup dark brown sugar, lump-free
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
¼ cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup chopped walnuts
4 tablespoons large-grain sugar (optional; see note)


  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Butter and flour one 9-inch square baking dish or tart pan.
  2. Place the chopped apples in a bowl of water along with the juice of the lemon. Set aside.
  3. Sift the flours together in a large bowl and add the baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar and salt.
  4. In a separate smaller bowl, whisk together the eggs and the buttermilk. Whisk in the melted butter. Pour the buttermilk mixture over the flour mixture and stir until barely combined — don’t overmix. (The batter will be very thick.)
  5. Drain the apples, shake off any excess water and fold the apples into the cake batter. Gently fold in the walnuts (do not over-mix).
  6. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, pushing it out toward the edges. Sprinkle the sugar over the top of the cake, if using. Bake on the middle rack for about 25 to 30 minutes or until the cake is just set and slightly golden on top. (Check it at 25 minutes; if a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean the cake is ready.)
  7. Let it cool for at least 15 minutes before you slice it. It’s delicious as is, but a dollop of whipped cream never hurts. Keep any leftover cake in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 5 days.

Note: To create a crunchy sugar top, add a large-grain sugar right before baking (it’s available in baking and specialty stores).

Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, Her latest collaboration is “Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., released in November 2011.

Photo: Leftover apple cake. Credit: Laura Holmes Haddad

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No-Stir ‘Risotto’ for Kid-Friendly Dinner Image

As a mom of two, there are a few dishes I hardly make anymore. I used to be that girl standing at the stove, leisurely (even lovingly) stirring risotto in my copper risotto pot while sipping a glass of wine. But those days are gone, at least until my now-crawling infant son stops climbing up my legs and my daughter is in grade school (she’s 4½).

But the risotto girl inside me was revived when I stumbled upon Ina Garten’s recipe for “risotto.” The quote marks are in there because this is not the classic risotto; this is a brilliant, mom-friendly “risotto” that takes away the spoon and uses the oven instead. And not only is the process a salvation for moms, the flavors are perfect for kids. (Skip the peas if your kids are the white-foods-only sort; or mix in pureed butternut squash for a little color and a serving of vegetable.)

My only change to the recipe was when to add the wine. The white wine is crucial for flavor, but Garten’s instruction to add it during the last two minutes of cooking seemed a little too boozy for a kid’s meal. So I added it in the beginning, with the chicken stock, as I would with a traditional risotto. And use the best Parmesan you can find (ideally the real Parmigiano-Reggiano); the nutty, rich flavor is incomparable and makes it feel grown-up even if you’re sitting at the kid’s table.

Easy Parmesan ‘Risotto’

Adapted from Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That?”

Serves 4 to 6


1½ cups Arborio rice
5 cups simmering chicken stock, (preferably homemade), divided
½ cup dry white wine
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup frozen peas


1. Heat the oven to 350 F.
2. Place the rice, 4 cups of the chicken stock, and the wine in a Dutch oven, such as Le Creuset. Cover and bake for 45 minutes, until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente.
3. Remove from the oven, add the remaining cup of chicken stock, the Parmesan, butter, salt, and pepper, and stir vigorously for 2 to 3 minutes, until the rice is thick and creamy.
4. Add the peas and stir until heated through. Serve hot.

Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, Her latest collaboration is “Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., released in November 2011.

Photo: No-stir “risotto.” Credit: Laura Holmes Haddad

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Ultimate Birthday Cake Image

As a mom of two and an auntie to three kids, making birthday cakes is now less a hobby and more a vocation. Every year I ignore the pleadings of my daughter for the turquoise Little Mermaid cake with eight inches of frosting in the supermarket bakery, and I head straight to the kitchen instead. While my cakes aren’t the fanciest on the block, they taste like actual cake and won’t turn the kids’ tongues neon colors.

And now that my once vanilla-only daughter has turned into a true chocoholic, I had to perfect the chocolate cake. Chocolate cake recipes abound — ingredients from mayonnaise and sour cream to coffee and booze are often included. But my mom recommended an oldie-but-goodie: the recipe on the back of the Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa box. I was suspicious; I’m a bit of a chocolate snob, and I wasn’t sure whether Hershey’s could stand up to my Scharffen Berger obsession.

But I was amazed by the result, which was a moist, light cake that wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet. This chocolate cake recipe will be your go-to for layer cakes, sheet cakes or cupcakes. And it’s a perfect base for the imaginative baker: Fill or top cupcakes with fresh whipped cream for a homemade “Hostess” cupcake, or make three layers with a boozy mocha buttercream for a more grown-up cake. And swathed in a simple chocolate buttercream, it is the ultimate child’s birthday cake.

I knew I had found the right recipe when my niece turned to me after devouring a large piece and said very seriously, “Aunt Laura, this is the best birthday cake ever.” This from a child who spends almost every weekend at a birthday party, sampling cake.

The only surprising ingredient in this recipe is adding boiling water to the batter, which is supposed to make the cake more moist. Whether that’s the magic ingredient or not, it definitely works.

This recipe is adapted from the Hershey’s recipe; I made a couple of changes. First, I substituted cake flour for all-purpose flour for a finer crumb. I also used large eggs (the original recipe doesn’t specify size). The frosting is a chocolate buttercream, which complements the cake perfectly and doesn’t overpower it.

The Ultimate Chocolate Birthday Cake

(Adapted from Hershey’s ‘Perfectly Chocolate’ cake recipe)

Makes 10-12 servings


2 cups sugar
1¾ cups cake flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa (Hershey’s or any other brand)
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
½ cup vegetable or canola oil
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water


  1. Heat oven to 350 F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans (or whichever pans you are using).
  2. Stir together the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla.
  3. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and beat using the medium speed of a mixer for 2 minutes.
  4. Stir in the boiling water (the batter will be thin).
  5. Pour the batter into the prepared pans.
  6. Bake 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove the cakes from pans to wire racks. Cool completely and then frost.


For a one-pan cake: Grease and flour a 13-by-9-by-2-inch baking pan. Bake 35 to 40 minutes.

For a three-layer cake: Grease and flour three 8-inch round baking pans. Bake 25 to 30 minutes.

For cupcakes: Grease and flour one 12-cup cupcake pan. Fill each tin ⅔ full of batter and bake for about 20 minutes.

Chocolate buttercream frosting

Makes enough to frost a two-layer (9-inch) cake or 12 cupcakes


½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups powdered sugar
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ cup plus 1 tablespoons heavy cream (or half and half)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt


  1. In the work bowl of a stand mixer (or with an electric mixer), cream the butter.
  2. Sift the sugar and cocoa powder together with the salt and gradually add to the butter, mixing well after each addition.
  3. Add the cream and vanilla and beat until well blended and fluffy. If frosting is too stiff, add a little bit more cream, and if it’s too runny add a little more sugar. If you want a more intense chocolate flavor, add a tablespoon more of cocoa powder.
  4. The frosting will keep in the refrigerator in a covered container for up to 3 days.

Note: This recipe easily doubles, and it’s always preferable to have more frosting to work with than to have to make a second batch!

Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, Her latest collaboration is “Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., released in November 2011.

Photo: Ultimate chocolate birthday cake. Credit: Laura Holmes Haddad

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How to Love a Turnip Image

The turnip is not a sexy vegetable. While plump, multi-hued tomatoes draw the eye and bright green snap peas beckon, the white knobby turnip lacks an aesthetic quality. Even the name evokes a tragic Russian novel, a pot of thin soup and a piece of stale bread. (It’s no coincidence that the turnip is a staple in England and Northern Europe.)

I might have gone right on ignoring this root vegetable had I not overheard a farmer trumpet the glory of turnips at my local farmers market. He was so convincing that I walked away with two bunches and a recipe idea.

Turnips may look boring (and tasteless, and generally unappealing) but steam them for eight minutes and add a pinch of two of good salt, a cracking of fresh pepper and the love affair just might begin. They have a nice refreshing bite, similar to a radish, and an earthy-sweet flavor reminiscent of fresh horseradish. While I savored them on their own, I couldn’t help but imagine a dish of braised short ribs or slow-cooked pork shoulder alongside. The acidic bite of a turnip is a perfect contrast to stewed meat.

I tried two varieties, the standard turnip and the smaller Tokyo turnip, an heirloom variety. The large standard turnip is white with a pinkish-purplish color at the top, and the Tokyo is a small white turnip that resembles a radish. The smaller variety offers a great raw crunch in salads. The French lamb and turnip stew Navarin is a classic dish that highlights this humble veggie. And like most root veggies, if you smother them with cream and cheese you’ve got a tasty gratin. Steam and smash them and add any flavoring: butter, horseradish, or even a handful of crispy bacon bits.

A few tips for your first turnip purchase: Choose hard turnips with bright green tops. Scrub and peel large turnips before you cook them. The Tokyo turnip doesn’t need to be peeled; just scrub with a vegetable brush. Don’t confuse turnips with yellow turnips, which are actually rutabagas. Turnips are available year-round but their peak season is October through March. Large turnips will last up to two weeks in the refrigerator, but use the smaller ones within two days.

Mashed Potatoes and Turnips With Horseradish

Serves 8 to 10

Until you are committed to the flavor of turnips (or are trying to convince someone else), combining them with potatoes is a good place to start. The addition of fresh horseradish boosts the turnip flavor. This would be the perfect side dish to a prime rib dinner.


2 pounds yellow-fleshed potatoes, such as Yukon gold
1¼ pounds turnips
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
¾ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons drained bottled horseradish, patted dry between paper towels
½ cup thinly sliced scallions (green parts only)
freshly ground black pepper


  1. Peel potatoes and turnips and then cut them into 2-inch pieces.
  2. Cover potatoes, turnips and 2 teaspoons salt with 2 inches of cold water in a large pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until potatoes are tender, about 16 minutes.
  3. Drain vegetables in a colander, then return to pot and mash.
  4. Stir in the milk, butter, horseradish and scallions over low heat until combined well and heated through.
  5. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.

Turnip equivalents:

Six 3-inch turnips = 1 pound
1 pound = 4 cups, chopped
2 turnips = 1 serving

Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, Her latest collaboration is “Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., released in November 2011.

Photos: Tokyo turnips, left, and standard turnips.
Credit: Laura Holmes Haddad

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Perfect Pancakes Image

It’s all about square footage, as they say in real estate. And the square footage of my refrigerator is like New York City; space is limited, so whatever is in there better be good. Besides the obvious refrigerator staples (olives, butter, prosciutto), buttermilk always has a place on the shelf. It’s one of my go-to ingredients and yet it has to be one of the most misunderstood foods around.

Mention buttermilk and immediately diet-conscious people will visibly cringe, while a few Southerners will start beaming. Someone needs to stand up for buttermilk, so here is what could be called a love letter to this luscious ingredient.

First, a few facts set the record straight. As with many tasty foods, it all comes down to bacteria. Traditionally, buttermilk is made from the liquid left over after churning butter. (The bacteria in milk ferments the milk’s lactose, and it’s lactic acid that gives buttermilk that tangy flavor.) Today, you most often see “cultured buttermilk,” which is pasteurized 1- or 2-percent milk that has been inoculated with bacteria “culture” to ferment the lactose.

Now it’s time for the science lesson: When an acid like buttermilk is combined with a chemical leavener like baking soda, gas bubbles are produced. This is what makes buttermilk a baker’s best friend — amazingly light cakes, breads and pancakes are the result of this chemical reaction.

Healthy and inexpensive

Besides baking, I use buttermilk in savory dishes such as salad dressings and dips. It adds a creaminess without that mouth coating you get from heavy cream or mayonnaise, and the tang it brings is just what a snack dip needs. Really, truly, you cannot make pancakes without it. If this pancake recipe doesn’t convince you, nothing will.

And calorie counters, take note: Buttermilk has less fat than regular milk because the fat has been removed. (A glass of buttermilk has 99 calories versus a glass of regular milk with 157 calories.) And it’s high in potassium, B12 and calcium. If you need yet another reason to try it, it’s inexpensive. (The pH level of buttermilk gives it a longer shelf life and thus a lower price than regular milk.)

If you’re really in a pinch and need a buttermilk substitute, you can make your own with milk and an acid. (But it’s not the same as using real buttermilk.)

Buttermilk Substitute


just a little less than 1 cup milk
1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice


  1. Add the vinegar to a measuring cup and add enough milk to bring it to the 1-cup line. Mix and let stand for at least 15 minutes.

The Best Buttermilk Pancakes

What better way to start a holiday morning than a stack of pancakes? These not-too-sweet pancakes fluff up to about ½-inch thick, so don’t forget the syrup. And they’re guaranteed to make you a buttermilk lover.

Makes eight 3½-inch pancakes; serves 2 to 4


¾ cup all-purpose flour (see note)
¾ cup whole-wheat flour
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk
canola or vegetable oil, for greasing the griddle
maple syrup, for serving


  1. Place the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and baking powder in a medium-size mixing bowl and stir to combine.
  2. Place the melted butter and the egg in a bowl and whisk to blend. Add the buttermilk and whisk thoroughly to combine.
  3. Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until combined, but do not over-mix. The batter should be thick and lumpy.
  4. Heat a griddle over high heat until very hot (a drop of water should sizzle on contact). Lightly grease the griddle with a small amount of oil and lower the heat to medium. Pour the batter onto the griddle. Don’t crowd the pancakes; you want the batter to spread easily, leaving enough room between the cakes to be able to flip them.
  5. Cook the pancakes until they begin to firm up and bubbles appear on the surface (watch closely; sometimes the cakes firm up before the bubbles show up), 2 to 3 minutes. Use a spatula to lift a pancake to check its bottom side; if it’s nicely browned, flip the cake. Check all pancakes before flipping.
  6. Continue cooking the pancakes until the second side is nicely browned, about 1 minute more.
  7. Serve the pancakes immediately with syrup, if desired.

Note: You can use any combination of flours that you have in your pantry. The whole-wheat flour makes them a bit more nutritious, but using only all-purpose flour results in even fluffier pancakes. Also, this recipe doubles easily.

Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Los Angeles, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, Her latest collaboration is “Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., released in November 2011.

Photo: Buttermilk pancakes. Credit: Laura Holmes Haddad

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Run, Rabbit, Run Image

Trying to re-create a favorite dish is a bit like trying to relive your first love: It’s an often fruitless effort and never quite the same as the real thing. But I’ve been determined to duplicate a plate of rabbit in mustard sauce I tasted eight years ago just outside Dijon, France. It was perfection: two beautifully braised rabbit legs served in a creamy mustard and white wine sauce (a dish, I discovered later, that is traditional to the region: Lapin à la Moutarde, a nod the birthplace of Dijon mustard). The delicate meat flecked with tiny, grainy mustard seeds inspired me to abandon chicken and order rabbit whenever possible.

Rabbit is truly a spectacular meat. The flavor is more complex than chicken, but it lacks the pronounced gaminess of lamb. But convincing my fellow Americans that the other other white meat is worth trying has proved difficult. Maybe it’s the white floppy bunny images that seem to permeate the media in March and April, but I beg you to put aside thoughts of the Easter Bunny and embrace this delectable meat. Unlike other finicky poultry like guinea hens and duck, there is nothing particularly challenging about cooking rabbit. The only thing a cook should know is that it’s extremely lean, meaning it will dry out easily, so braising and grilling are the best cooking methods.

Most good grocery stores can order rabbit for you, but look for it at your local farmers market. You can also order it from DArtagnan, a specialty meat purveyor in New York City. Just be sure the rabbit is local or from the United States. A few sources are importing rabbit from China and the quality is inferior.

This recipe is my attempt to re-create the lunch I had in France. It makes a wonderful winter or early spring dish alongside a bowl of soft polenta or buttered noodles. I like to serve it with a white Burgundy or a German Riesling.

Braised Rabbit in Mustard Sauce

Serves 6


2 (4-pound) rabbits, each cut into 6 serving pieces
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
⅓ cup good, grainy Dijon mustard
¾ stick (6 tablespoons) cold unsalted butter, diced
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 whole sprigs fresh thyme plus 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1½ cups dry white wine
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream


  1. Season the rabbit with salt and pepper. Spread the mustard all over the rabbit pieces.
  2. In a very large, deep enameled cast-iron pot, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add 4 of the rabbit pieces and cook over moderately high heat until browned on the bottom, about 2 minutes. Turn the pieces and cook until browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl. Repeat in 2 batches with the remaining rabbit pieces, adding the remaining 1 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil to the casserole for the last batch. Remove the rabbit pieces to the bowl.
  3. Add the onion and shallots to the pot and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the wine and boil over moderately high heat, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pot, until reduced by half, about 8 minutes. Add the stock and the two thyme sprigs. Nestle the rabbit pieces in the pot and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat, turning the rabbit pieces a few times, until the meat is tender, 50 to 60 minutes. (The meat should feel somewhat firm when you touch it, but you don’t want to overcook it.)
  4. Transfer the rabbit pieces to a bowl and cover loosely with foil. Discard half the cooking liquid. Boil the remaining cooking liquid over high heat until reduced by half, about 8 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs. Add the heavy cream and boil until thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir and season the sauce with salt and pepper. Add a tablespoon or two of mustard to the sauce if desired. Return the rabbit to the pot and simmer on low for a minute or two to heat through. Sprinkle with the chopped thyme and serve.

Note: Your butcher will cut up the rabbit for you.

Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, Her latest collaboration is “Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country” with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., released in November 2011.

Photo: Braised Rabbit in Mustard Sauce.

Photo credit: Laura Holmes Haddad

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