Gingerbread House Adventures – Part II

The Big Princess Poopie:

After stalling this week on our Winery Gingerbread House, we woke up to big rains and the Big Baking Day… and a missed deadline.  In my infinite pregnancy abilities, I mis-calendered delivery of said House for tomorrow.  But it is really due today.  (Sorry SVVGA!)

Frankly, at this point in my pregnancy, I am a slug.  And limit myself to one non-essential parenting activity each day.  Baking the Gingerbread House is my big parenting thing this week.  Besides, with the epic rain storm, would you want to cross this  bulging creek with a Gingerbread House perched atop a dome of sugar icing?  No, I don’t either.  I mean, we don’t even have dog food.  Poor dog — even Dean fed her leftover split pea soup (with a curry garnish) for breakfast… Can’t wait to see how that one turns out…

Creek at Annadel Estate Winery this morning

But set forth we girls did into what we will now call the Gingerbread Princess Castle…as making a Castle is more fun for Anni than our Barn.  We pulled up the Food Network recipe link that Taylor had thoughtfully sent us.  In our pajamas, Anni and I combined room temperature butter, dark sugar, molasses, and ample doses ground cinnamon, ginger, and cloves.

mixing first set of ingredients

Then we added 2 cups of flour.  And did our Happy Dance over the bowl for luck to cranked up James Brown…

Happy Dance for luck

Perhaps I should have read the recipe a bit more carefully before wiggling.  I was to cream sugars, butter and spices BEFORE adding flour.  And we ended up with a gravely, dusty mess… Apparently I remain said “idiot” as the market Bakery Ladies reminded me kindly…

Too dry

Hmm… Well, crap.  Plan B: My fail safe method of using both hands to squish the butter and finely mix in the molasses with the dry ingredients helped a bit but not much.

Plan C: So I checked the reviews to this Food Network recipe while Anni licked the whisk.  After the few obligatory, glowing remarks, I found what I was looking for: Critiques.  And a handful said the recipe dough, even when done correctly, was too dry and ‘cracked everywhere.’  So I was not alone here.

One writer suggested beating in an egg or very fine vinegar.  I may not be generally frugal but I didn’t want to waste good vinegar on what another writer dubbed “Frankenstein cookies.” So an egg it is.  Anni and I blended in one large egg and the dry, dusty dough turned an aromatic, soft brown.

We turned it out onto a clean, lightly floured surface and kneaded it into a large flat disc for chilling.

The “Big Princess Poopie” as Anni called it, is now firming up in the fridge.  45 minutes from now, we will begin rolling out the dough and preparing our castle… Wish us luck!

The "Big Princess Poopie"

Gingerbread House Adventures – Part I

Friend Maureen convinced me in a less hectic-Holiday time (i.e. 2 weeks ago) to compete in a Gingerbread House Building Competition amongst all of the Wineries.  For the entire Sonoma Valley.  With the confection structures to be publicly displayed at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.  I thought, “sure! why not? Blue ribbon all the way!”  (The Type A in me dies hard.)

With Thanksgiving behind us and several days of rain ahead, toddler Anni and I set forth today to gather ingredients to build a one-of-a kind, never to be beat, amazing, fantastic Gingerbread House.  We’re not sure yet if ‘it’ will be of this old Farmhouse or the 1900s redwood Barn.  But either way, we set out naively armed with my fancy grocery list pen (yes, I’m a nerd) and a web-recipe thoughtfully shared by Taylor, Maureen’s colleague at the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Association.

I thought, “how hard can this be?” But the lovely bakery ladies at Oliver’s Market kindly shared that today, I am an idiot.  And once I got home and looked at my motley assortment of store bought decorative details, I am now inclined to agree with them:

our Gingerbread Farmhouse 'decorations'

Mint M&Ms, a presto-kit for template in case we get stuck, green and red jelly goos surely made in China (I thought for florals and vegetation), pasty white chocolate ‘shards’, and Skittles.  Clearly, the Annadel Estate Winery entry will be intended for Santa’s cross-dressing elves.

The only thing I am fairly hopeful about is the Almond Roca (a total score on Anni’s part) which I plan to wrestle away from her and crush it into ‘gravel’ for the drive.

Apparently, a four year old’s craft-time project at Nordstrom is not for the adult faint of heart.  To build one from scratch, detailed renderings must be sketched out on parchment paper.  Once the Gingerbread dough is assembled and rolled out, the walls, roof, and other architectural elements must be cut with razor sharp precision from the dough not once, but twice.  Then there is the whole matter of the white sugary, pastry ‘glue’.  Too thin, the house will collapse.  Too thick and it will look like maxi-pads are binding your whole house together.  And that is not appetizing.

Back to Pinterest and web browsing, I go.  Wish us luck and I will keep you all posted on our adventures Gingerbreading.



“Cooking gave her structure, it was substantive, meaningful, it brought her accomplishment and independence, everything she’d long desired.  The last thing she wanted was a conventional life.  Julia dreaded turning into the obedient little woman…. Far from resenting the kitchen to which she was virtually chained, she learned to love the feel of food and to love working with it: “the variety of dishes and sauces and arrangements,” she said “are immensely stimulating for the imagination.””

Cover from Dearie by Bob Spitz

— excerpt from Dearie, The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz

A Short Word About Pumpkins

Now that we have all eaten our weight in constructed starches and savory desserts, the nerd in me wanted to look into the nuts and bolts of pumpkins… the very thing most of us are still digesting.  

Pumpkins are part of the Curcurbita pepo family, a group of North American Squash that includes acorn squash, zucchini, and spaghetti squash.  Having typically a thick shell, pumpkins are creased from stem to the bottom and contain seeds and pulp.  “Squash” comes from a Narragansett Indian word meaning “a green thing eaten raw.”

Pumpkins and squash comes in three distinct flavor types fall into the genre of sweet, starchy nutritious “winter” squash which are harvested fully mature and keep for months.  When cooked, winter squashes develop a consistency and flavor something like those of a sweet potato.

All are native to warm climates and hate being too cold.  First domesticated in 5,000 BCE, pumpkin is now grown on every continent for human and animal feed purposes, with the exception of Antarctica.  In America, more than 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are produced every year.  Illinois, Indiana, California, Ohio and Pennsylvania being the nation’s “pumpkin hot beds.”  Nestle, operating under the homey brand Libby’s makes 85% of the processed pumpkin in the United States alone.

However you eat it, pumpkin is a killer source of beta-carotene and Carotenoids.  Carotenoids (also found in other orange and yellow produce such as carrots, persimmons, apricots, and oranges) are great for our eyes, protecting the delicate optical cells.

When cooked, stewed, or pureed, moderately sweet pumpkins can morph into a savory or sweet dish.  Like gourds, in ancient times, the edible shell of pumpkin motivated early Native American cooks to fill their cavities with sweet or savory liquids, then baked, and eaten.

Plan to store pumpkins a while longer for decoration? Store in a dry, cool place.  Pumpkins don’t like to be colder than 55’F.

— Adapted from, Wikipedia, and Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking


Loving Chardonnay

8:06 PM on a Thursday night:

Just shy of 6 months preggo with our second, I dream and dream and dream of a full, proper “local’s pour” of crisp, bright Chardonnay.  I can even hear it unfurl into clean stemware right now!  Selfishly, we have this cellar across the creek calling my name.  And no matter how you cut it, my damned Cucumber tea is NOT the same thing as Chardonnay.

To brag, we have one of the finest, most fabulous Chardonnays in both Valleys.  Crisp, bright, surging with white fruit, and barrel fermented with just a hint of oak.  We make the kind of wine we as red-wine-lovers want to drink.  You can do that when you hand-make your wine in small batches.  And when you wear cowgirl boots to work and sling wine out of an old redwood barn!  But when you’re a wine label known specifically for your reds and you go on to tackle the Queen of all white grapes, respect and care must be taken at every turn in the winemaking process not to over oak your beautiful juice.

A handful of our gorgeous 2012 Vintage, Los Chamizal Vineyards

Chardonnay is a robust, magnificent grape.  Superb, majestic, statuesque and all female.  Born from the tight Burgundy hillsides eons ago, Chardonnay flourishes especially well in the warm sunny microclimates in California.  I, for one, am a fan of ‘less expensive’ Chardonnays — the crisper, brighter Chards that don’t often fare well in the heavy handed palate of America’s wine critiques.  Which suits me and my pocketbook just fine. Had I followed “90 pointers” and not explored my own palate over the last 5 years, I wouldn’t know that I favor more elegant, medium- to light-bodied wines that go well with what I am cooking.

By “cheaper” Chardonnays, I mean usually less than $30 a bottle with a cellared $55 bottle for a special occasion.  Unless you won’t bat an eye, forget the $70-$125 bottles.  People buy those usually when they haven’t done their homework.  Be proactive! Conscientious, safe, proactive drinking is a good thing!   It is how you learn.

To get down to brass tacks, I like Chardonnays grown in a cooler, more coastal zone that is pressed from the skins and stems immediately (see picture below) and fermented in a mixture of steel and neutral French oak with subsequent barrel aging and only partial ML.   In English, grapes coming in from cooler vineyards tend to produce more fruit-driven wines with a healthy dose of minerality and sandy shale.  Fermenting their juices without the skins in steel and neutral oak lifts up the fruit and mineral elements over any resulting butter or vanilla notes.  Grapes from the Napa Valley or equally warm regions show (after production) too much vanilla and butter for me.  But every single person, tongue, nose, and mouth is different.  Yet this butter quality is a key entrance point for wine drinkers across America — like whole milk and vanilla extract, its a mouthfeel and familiar flavor newcomers to wine feel comfortable with.  As winemakers today, I am grateful to all visitors who started with a buttery Chardonnay and now are taking the next steps to learn about their palates and explore different types of Chardonnay.

A look at pressed Chardonnay juices inside the Bladder Press for this 2012 vintage

Unfortunately, Chardonnay have been bastardized for decades into some butter-ball in a glass.  Luckily, we as an industry are seriously trending away from that but for years huge Wine houses produced Chardonnays for supermarket shelves across the country, cut corners in production, and mixed in sugars, syrups, and additives to simulate fine wines.  And the result is SOOOO fattening.  Think of anything less than $20 anywhere as pouring fast food into your glass every night.  You may as well self-smear cellulite on while you’re at it.  These same houses also paid some cellar rat to don a Hazmat suit and add oak dust to ginormous tanks of fermenting grape juice.  The gunk is filtered out later after fermentation and chemically creates that “oaky mouthfeel”  in the finished wine.  It fakes that buttery quality that expensive ‘buttery Chardonnays’ get from extensive barrel fermentation and aging.  Oak dust additives also gives those of us with sulfite sensitivies a nasty headache.  And in my case, makes me a bitch.

Here in California, we are lucky.  There are more than 850 different, federally recognized Wineries selling Chardonnay.  Most of them sell more than one option too.  In fact, more than 1/3 of all grapes grown in this Golden State are Chardonnay.  She’s a lovely muse to be sure and grape growers must work harder to coax vineyards to yield large crops every year.  Naturally, Chardonnay as a vine is more restrained than say Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling.  As a result, grape tonnage will be more expensive than other white varietals — hence a bigger price tag starting off.  And she loves French oak.  When Chardonnay spends time in French Oak barrels, the wood amplifies the grape’s natural vanilla, citrus, and white fruit characteristics, creating a more spectacular wine.  (Which is why big houses cut corner to fake this.  It tastes good.)  But for fine wine artisans, like Dean and myself, cutting those corners demonizes a lengthy, creative waltz we’ve been honored to learn from leaders today and lessons learned from generations past.

Since some of you know I’m a wine writer here in Wine Country, I try A LOT of Chardonnays.  But when it comes to my home and my glass, I drink and buy what I love.  My exceedingly short and steady list of favorites is:

  • 2010 Annadel Estate Chardonnay ($34)
  • Schug Carneros Estate Chardonnays — all three are perfection ($22-55)
  • Hafner Chardonnays — both are superb and I am an actual member of their Wine Club! (mid $20-30s)
  • Deerfield Ranch Winery Chardonnay — the right amount of butter! ($35)
  • Idle Cellars Chardonnay — Two strong boys created one of the more lovely and lyrical Chardonnays anywhere in the Valley! ($20)
  • MacRostie Chardonnay from Wildcat Mountain Vineyards — bright and bountiful  ($35)
  • Haywood Estate Chardonnay — the Los Chamizal Vineyards source for our Chardonnay and Deerfield’s.  He knows his soil and vines surely!



I’d also recommend Lynmar Chardonnay for a killer Russian River Valley selection if their Tasting Room staff wasn’t so unpleasant!

Out of FIVE YEARS of conscientious, proactive drinking and learning, I give you my short list.  Happy and safe drinking!

Why Cook?

I loved this quote from Deborah Madison, author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

“Practically speaking, if you’re concerned about the quality of food you eat, cooking be of vital importance for it’s the only way you can really know what you are eating…  There’s also satisfaction in taking responsibility for what we eat instead of turning it over to others… It’s a gift to be able to cook for others — and its wonderful to be cooked for.”

Good foods for your skin!

All of us, in one way or another, are on the hunt for better skin.  Beauty is important — inside and out.  In my book, it is important to treat your body, your mind, and spirit well by what you put into your mouth and present yourself well to your world.  How you look (no matter if you’re naturally attractive or not) is a sign of self-respect.  And therefore valuable!

Here are a few foods to eat to help improve our complexions from the inside out:

  • Water with fresh lemon
  • Lemons in general
  • Fresh, raw nuts — even a handful a day!
  • Big Greens like Kale and Spinach
  • Brown rice and grains like Quinoa
  • Almond Milk (to reduce fine lines)

Remind me to stock up on fresh lemons this week!

Big Swede’s Chocolate Truffle Toffee

Big Swede's Finished Toffee

Every Fall, lovebirds visit us from Texas.  When Sharon and Robert (aka the “Big Swede”) Gustavsson visit, a weekend of fun always unfolds.  Robert and Dean met in some dusty South American town while Dean was on one of his fabulously epic, cross continent motorcycle adventures. Robert was building a power plant. And they have been friends ever since.

This year, the Big Swede cooked a bang up meal in our Farmhouse Kitchen.  The piece de resistance? Dessert.  Or what I hear by dub forever and ever the “Big Swede’s Chocolate Truffle Toffee.’

Dear God was it good! It takes a bit of effort but not bad at all.  And like all good desserts, your house will smell heavenly.  Plus, the toffee freezes well to be parceled out later… With his generous permission, here is the Big Swede’s recipe:


  • 2-3 cups total nuts (almonds, macademia nuts, hazelnuts, pecans) in halves or whole
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup dark corn syrup (Robert used Karo brand)
  • 2 & 1/3 cups heavy cream
  • 11 oz. dark chocolate (PREMIUM quality) — 60-72% Dark Chocolate
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 9 tablespoon butter (softened)
  • 1 cooking thermometer


Toast Nuts: Preheat oven to 350’F.  Working in batches, toast the nuts in the oven on a baking sheet, checking often. Toasting happens quickly so keep watch.  Once toasted, put nuts aside.

Make the toffee:  In a medium sauce pan, bring the 1 cup sugar, 1 cup dark corn syrup, and 1 cup heavy cream to a boil.  Stir mixture regularly until it reaches 115’C or 240′ F.  Test with your thermometer.  Remove from heat IMMEDIATELY and stir in toasted nuts.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or tin foil.  Paper should come up over sides.  Spread the warm toffee and nuts mixture out in the pan.  Put pan into the freezer to set.  (At least 30 mins).

Toffee and Nuts ready to freeze

Make the truffle chocolate: Chop the dark chocolate and put into into a clean mixing bowl.

Using a clean sauce pan, bring 1&1/3 cup heavy cream to a full boil.  Pour boiling cream over chopped chocolate and stir until smooth.  Quickly add in the 4 egg yolks and 9 tablespoons of soft butter.

Take cold toffee and nut mix out of the freezer.  Once the chocolate truffle mix is soft and truly blended well, pour immediately over the cold toffee and nut mixture and spread out evenly.  Refreeze.  Chocolate will set in 30+ minutes.

Toffee and chocolate will keep in the freezer for a few months.  When ready to serve, remove chocolate toffee from freezer and thaw 15-20 minutes.  Using a sharp knife, cut toffee into bite size pieces.

And according to Robert, “Serve with a single malt whiskey.”

Thanks Big Swede!!! 

The Big Swede, aka Robert Gustavsson

Awesome Tomato Tip

Use a potato ricer to remove skins from fresh tomatoes!! 

A Standard Potato Ricer. (Image via Lefse)

If you’re like me, you have little necessary tasks when cooking that you just HATE to do.  For me, one of them is peeling the skins from fresh tomatoes.  In fact, I’ll secretly use diced or crushed San Marzano tomatoes sometimes rather than just go outside and pick the tomatoes I need!  Peeling skins is messy and stupidly labor intensive.  But yes, I know — it is totally worth the effort.

Well here is today’s killer cooking tip!  Blanch the tomatoes quickly like you normally would and then, instead of futzing with hot fruit and burning yourself or splooshing jelly seeds down your sweater (like I am prone to do) simply put the blanched tomato into a potato ricer! Push down on the handle and mush all of the gorgeous pulp, jelly and seeds into your bowl or pot — leaving the bitter skins and tough stuff behind!

Total genius from Cook’s Illustrated!

Tonic Water began as….?

Did you know Tonic Water began as an anti-MALARIAL treatment?   Yep.

Originally called Indian Tonic Water, it was made by 19th century British colonialists from bitter quinine extracted from the bark of the Cinchona or “fever” tree.  Quinine is an natural crystalline alkaloid with anti-inflammatory, fever-reducing antimalarial properties.

Cinchona or Quina trees were “found” first in the tropical Andes forests of South America by Spanish missionaries in the 1500s and later, coined “Cinchona” after a Peruvian Countess  by Carl Linnaeus in 1638.  But Peru soon banned all exports of the tree, cuttings or seeds to maintain a monopoly on quinine medicine.  It was 19th c. British who smuggled seeds out of Peru and into South Asia to combat Malaria.  Today, Cinchona trees are found mostly on plantations in the Congo and South America although 98% of tonic brands use laboratory synthetic quinine.

Served originally in South Asia and Africa, where Malaria is most present, the drink was once far more bitter and considered a serious prophylactic against the disease.   The first tonics contained only carbonated water, no sugars, and much more quinine than in brands today.  But it was the British in India to include sizable additions of sugar and Gin that made the concoction more palatable and eventually, wide spread.

Even today, quinine (as a chemical) is used in all tonic waters.  See for yourself.  Pick up any brand and shine it under an ultraviolet light.  Quinine glows!  Even in direct sunlight.

Quinine glows under ultraviolet light.

Now for the REAL Tonic Water (that is also high-fructose corn syrup free), buy Fever Tree or Q Tonic brands.

  • * Information condensed from Cook’s Illustrated and Wikipedia.
  • *Image courtesy of Wikipedia.