Twist and Shout

As my back heals and I try to follow the directions my physical therapist has laid out for me which include wearing a back brace, and not bending or twisting, Rich has done more than his fair share in the kitchen. This is a mixed blessing, as his repertoire consists mostly of cocktails and cooking large pieces of meat. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and I do love gin.

Last week I heard him rummaging in the spice cabinet – my guess is to find the nutmeg for a hot toddy – and I heard him call out to me, “You know you have an unopened container of Ghirardelli baking cocoa back here?” I thanked him for the reminder and tucked the knowledge away for another time.

dark chocolate soft pretzels

When we heard that winter storm Hercules was coming our way, Rich went to the market to load up on supplies, which just meant more milk for White Russians and hot cocoa with the aforementioned canister. But I actually had a plan for that unsweetened cocoa, one I hadn’t had a chance to work on. And so, with both our offices closed on Friday because of the snow storm, and Lilli off taking her morning nap, I got to work on the dark chocolate soft pretzels I’d bookmarked in a cookbook that was sent my way a few months ago.

I’ll admit the title of the book captured my attention immediately. I mean, who wouldn’t be intrigued by a cookbook called Crazy About Chocolate? It contains more than 200 sweet and savory recipes written by Krystina Castella, author of Crazy About Pies, Crazy About Cupcakes, Crazy About Cookies and Crazy About Cakes. (There was a photo of her on the back cover, and no, she doesn’t look like she eats sweets all day long.)

There were the expected candy, cake and cookie recipes (a natural progression by someone who’s written books about those subjects) but there were also savory recipes like apple-smoked ribs with cocoa barbeque sauce, and grilled corn on the cob with milk chocolate butter. I also got a kick out of the holiday section, which ranged from chocolate-coated, almond-flavored Easter eggs, hamentashen for Purim and hazelnut meringues for Passover, and even chocolate pineapple moon cakes for the Chinese New Year.

But it was these dark chocolate soft pretzels that caught my eye. They were actually in the “Weddings” section of the book:

Celebrate tying the knot with soft chocolate pretzel twists. Based on recipes used by classic New York street vendors, these pretzels have a chocolaty, salty flavor combination that’s sure to please.

Or, as Rich noted after eating one, “They taste like the chocolate bread they serve at The Cheesecake Factory.”

There’s something nice about rising a yeasted dough on a heating vent on chilly winter days (so long as the heat is working). And yes, like last week’s rugelach, the directions might seem complicated but aren’t at all: Make a yeasted dough, let it rise, shape the pretzels, boil them and bake them. The rolling out the dough into long ropes and twisting them into pretzels would be a great task for young helpers in the kitchen. If you can’t find a ruler, do what I did and use a measuring tape.

Cowgirl Lilli

I will say that the author and editor slipped up a bit in the recipe, forgetting to include when the yeast mixture is added to the flour mixture, so I have included that step here. I also kneaded the dough with my dough hook on my Kitchen-Aid mixer, lightening the load on my back.

When I posted the photos of the finished product on Facebook, my friend Gayle asked where I’d found the lye, which is traditionally added to the boiling water when making pretzels. Goodness, no, I wouldn’t have lye in the house with a little one. Baking soda replaced the lye when it was time to boil these babies. Feel free to get creative with your toppings. The recipe makes eight pretzels, so I made two each of Maldon salt, Turbinado sugar, chopped mini peanut butter cups (a tub of which lives in my freezer, ahem) and mini chocolate chips leftover from last week’s rugelach.

Dark Chocolate Soft Pretzels from Crazy About Chocolate by Krystina Castella


1 ½ cups warm water

¼ cup plus 3 Tablespoons granulated sugar

2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (1 package)

4 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder

2 teaspoons kosher salt

5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Vegetable oil

2/3 cup baking soda

1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 Tablespoon water

Pretzel salt, sea salt or Maldon salt

½ cup nuts, sprinkles, nonpareils, or white chocolate chips


Combine the water, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, and the yeast in a small bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to foam.

Combine the flour, cocoa powder, salt, remaining sugar, and butter in a large bowl. Or, combine the flour, cocoa powder, salt, remaining sugar, and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the foaming yeast mixture and mix it all together in an electric mixer on low speed until well blended. Transfer to a floured work surface and knead the dough until it is smooth, 8-10 minutes. Or, if you are using a standing mixer, switch over to the dough hook and knead the dough on high speed until the dough is smooth.

Grease a large bowl with vegetable oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover the bowl with either plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and set in a warm place for 50 – 60 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly brush with vegetable oil.

Fill a large pot with water (10 – 12 cups) and stir in the baking soda. Cover and bring to a rolling boil over high heat.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled work surface and divide into 8 pieces. Roll out each piece of dough into a 24-inch rope. Make a U shape with the rope and, holding the ends of the rope, cross them over each other to form the shape of a pretzel. Press the dough to secure the shape, then place on the baking sheets.

Add the pretzels one at a time to the boiling water for 30 – 40 seconds, 15 – 20 seconds on each side. Remove the pretzels from the water using a slotted spoon. Return to the baking sheet, brush the top of each pretzel with the egg-water glaze, and sprinkle with the salt, nuts, sprinkles or candies. Bake for 12 – 14 minutes, until dry and dark. Transfer to a rack to cool for 10 minutes before serving.


The Last Hurrah

Rich heard the clanging and crashing from the back room and came running. My guess is he was worried that a plate had fallen to the floor, or maybe a pot had slipped from its hook off the rack on the wall. The noise turned out to be the sound of a serving spoon scraping the last bits of the buttermilk dressing off the serving dish directly into my mouth.

“Oof. Yuuwersppdtuseethif,” I said by way of explanation. (For those of you who don’t ordinarily deal with people talking with serving spoons and platters in their mouths, what I said was “Oops. You weren’t supposed to see this.”) I swallowed, licked the spoon, and put the dish back on the table.

I couldn’t help myself. Really, I couldn’t. I saw this dinner as a final farewell for my tomatoes and peaches. Sure, I knew there’d be a few more to come in next week’s CSA box, but something had happened overnight in Boston. As soon as we’d turned the page on Labor Day, the sky grew dark, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees, and a near-constant rain started to fall. Summer, the clouds seemed to say, is definitely over.  All I had left to remind me of the season were some ripe tomatoes and peaches. These needed to be treated with utmost respect; something special for their last hurrah.

I’m not sure if it was the storm or a dream, but the night before I sat straight up in bed and whispered “buttermilk,” which had taken on a kind of reverence that perhaps someone’s childhood sled name whispered by a fireside might. The thought of buttermilk haunted me the next day, its creaminess, its twang. I wanted it to bathe my tomatoes in it. And, if I was lucky and found the right recipe, my peaches could enjoy a buttermilk treatment as well.

I found the dressing recipe I was looking for via Deb, who found hers via Gourmet. I changed mine up a little bit, using a summer sweet Vidalia onion instead of a shallot. I have leftovers of the dressing, and I plan on drizzling it on top of every vegetable in my crisper, then perhaps going out to the market and buying a plain old head of iceberg lettuce to continue the dressing-fest.

The peach cake came via the food community Food52, which was founded by Amanda Hesser, a food writer for the New York Times, and Merrill Stubs, a freelance food writer and recipe tester. The site’s first project was a crowd-sourced cookbook, and this recipe was one of their first contests winners: You submit a recipe, readers vote, and each week the winning recipe makes it into a cookbook, hence the name Food52. I think the tasting notes on this one sum it up:

The cake is chock full of juicy summer peaches, and the addition of ground almonds sets it apart from other simple butter cakes. It’s luscious and a bit custardy in the areas surrounding the peaches — a texture that works when the cake is either warm or at room temperature. Don’t be alarmed if the batter seems to curdle when you add the buttermilk, as it will come together again once you mix in the dry ingredients.

If you’re on the fence about purchasing an entire bottle of buttermilk, add 1 teaspoon vinegar or lemon juice to a cup of milk. In five minutes, you’ll have enough buttermilk for both these recipes.

Buttermilk Dressing


1/2 cup well-shaken buttermilk

2 Tablespoons mayonnaise

2 Tablespoons cider vinegar

2 Tablespoons minced Vidalia onion

1 Tablespoon sugar

3 Tablespoons finely chopped chives


Whisk together buttermilk, mayonnaise, vinegar, onion, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl until sugar has dissolved, then whisk in chives.

Simple Summer Peach Cake


3 ripe peaches

3/4 teaspoons freshly ground nutmeg

1 cup sugar

6 Tablespoons softened unsalted butter

1 large egg

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup almond flour (or finely ground almonds)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

Turbinado sugar


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan.

Cut the peaches into bite sized pieces. Toss the peaches with nutmeg and 2 tablespoons sugar. Set aside.

Cream together the butter and remaining sugar with a wooden spoon or spatula. Add the egg, buttermilk and extracts, and stir to combine.

Combine the flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add this flour mixture to the butter mixture, mix until smooth (some lumps may remain). Pour into the prepared pan.

Press the peaches into the top of the cake. They can be nicely arranged, but it made more sense to cram as many peaches as possible into the cake. Sprinkle Turbinado sugar over the top.

Genuine Ginger Beer

We don’t go out very often. I think it boils down to two basic things: 1. I have trouble justifying the cost of most nice meals when I know I can make it in my own kitchen for a fraction of the cost, and 2. When I make it in my own kitchen, I can season the dish to just my liking. When we go out, I become a mash up of Goldilocks and Meg Ryan from When Harry Met Sally. “Um, waiter, I’d like my porridge to be served in a medium, heated, bowl, but don’t fill the whole thing with porridge, leave room for a splash of heavy cream, and a dash of nutmeg, oh, and can I have a side of honey?”

Although not visible in this picture, this glass of homemade soda is very bubbly.

We met up with friends over drinks in Harvard Square last week, and the Moscow Mule — homemade ginger beer, vodka and lime — caught my eye. Or really, the homemade ginger beer did. I had been thinking a lot about homemade sodas lately. There’s a great raspberry one at Flour Bakery, and  Clover Food Lab has really neat flavors like vanilla bean and hibiscus.

So I ordered just the ginger beer. It was very tasty but much too sweet, and the truth was, could really have used some vodka to cut it. So I ordered a shot of vodka. Then it was good, but not quite there. It was missing lime. So I ordered some limes. Well, after realizing I had just deconstructed and reconstructed an entire drink, I figured I might as well order it the way it was meant to be. But the vodka in the drink overpowered its gingery sweetness. Third time was a charm when I ordered a glass of ginger beer, a shot of vodka and some limes. It was nice to finally have the drink taste just right, but not the most cost effective way to go about doing it.

And, I asked myself, if this bar serves homemade ginger beer, why can’t I?

I sifted through some recipes and was tickled when I realized I could. All I needed was to ferment sugar with baker’s yeast, generating carbon dioxide which would carbonate my homemade soda. Also, this way I could control how much sugar went into the soda.

The recipe I have here is a combination of a few recipes, and I highly encourage you to fiddle with it until it’s to your liking. I think a teaspoon of vanilla would work really well with this basic recipe; a couple of whole cloves or even a cardamom pod would be great, too. I happened on a sale of turbinado sugar last week, so I had that on hand for this recipe, but I would have ordinarily used brown sugar. White sugar would also work. It’s entirely up to you.

You can make the ginger beer and add the vodka and lime to it like the restaurant did, or add rum and make a Dark and Stormy. I’ve recently discovered that Marty’s Liquor has an overstock store in my neighborhood. It’s like Ocean State Job Lot, but for alcohol. With recipes like this one, I will be making frequent trips!

Homemade Ginger Beer

For this recipe, you will need a clean 2 liter plastic soft drink bottle with cap. Do not use glass, as the pressure from the fermentation could cause it to shatter. A funnel really comes in handy, as does a box grater for the ginger.


1 cup brown sugar

2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger root and its juices.

Juice of half a lemon

1/4 teaspoon granular baker’s yeast

cold water


Pour the cup of sugar into the bottle using the funnel

Add the bakers yeast through the funnel into the bottle

Shake to disperse the yeast grains into the sugar granules.

Grate the ginger and then place it into a measuring cup

Juice half a lemon directly into the measuring cup

Stir to form a slurry

Add the slurry to the bottle

Rinse the measuring cup and add the rinsings to the bottle, cap and shake to distribute.

Fill the bottle to the neck with fresh cool clean water, leaving about an inch of head space, securely screwing the cap down to seal. Invert repeatedly to thoroughly dissolve sugar.

Place in a warm location for 24 to 48 hours. Do not leave at room temperature longer than necessary for it to feel “hard.” The excess pressure may cause an eruption when you open it or even explode the bottle

Test to see if the carbonation is complete by squeezing the bottle forcefully with your thumb. It if dents, it is not ready.

Not quite ready, as I can still make an indent.


Once the bottle feels hard to a forceful squeeze, place in the refrigerator. Before opening, refrigerate at least overnight to thoroughly chill.

Filter the ginger beer through a strainer before serving.