There’s a January chill in the air and a slow fire in the grate. The Christmas decorations are carefully stowed away at last, leaving the house feeling clean and calm, and blissfully less cluttered. It’s the perfect time for a stolen moment of solitude, the evening paper, and a slice of cake.

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I usually reserve this gingery cottage cake for the month of December, when it’s spicy aroma and festive, sugar-dusted peaks seem especially appropriate. In fact, I baked this one to conclude our New Year’s Eve late-night supper. Wonderful that it is every bit as moist and gently spicy today as it was when we rang in 2015. Today’s slow pace, and my chair near the fire after a chilly afternoon spent walking, makes my sweet holiday relic all the more welcome.


We set out on our favorite loop just after a late lunch today, heading towards Buena Vista Winery, sneaking in the back gate of Bartholomew Park and down oak-canopied Castle Road.

IMG_3846Instead of turning home, we ambled downtown, just in time to catch the first flicker of the Plaza’s holiday lights. No doubt it was their merry sparkle that put me in the right frame of mind for my Christmas-y cake.

IMG_3646 - Version 2I’ve come up with a few renditions of sweet tea cake that work well in my beloved cottage mold pan from Nordicware. This one, with it’s delicate spice and unexpected shards of crystallized ginger, displaced my almond cake of a few years back as the new and undisputed family favorite.

Ginger Cottage Cake

Ginger Cottage Cake

2 ¾ cups cake flour

1 tablespoon ground ginger

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 tesapoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar

2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger, plus more for garnish (optional)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 eggs

1¼ cups whole milk, at room temperature

Confectioners’ (powdered) sugar for dusting over the top

Lightly whipped cream (optional)

Preheat an oven to 325F. Brush the inside of a 10-cup cottage cake mold with melted butter or shortening, then dust with flour. Set aside.

In a bowl, mix together the flour, ground ginger, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and crystallized ginger. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low. Add the flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with the milk in 2 batches, and beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Do not overbeat.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Rap pan gently but firmly on the counter top to bring any air bubbles to the surface. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes with just a few crumbs attached, 50-55 minutes. Let cool upright in pan for 10 minutes, then invert onto a rack and let cool completely. Sift confectioners’ sugar over the top of the cake. Serve each piece with a dollop of softly whipped cream and a sprinkling of crystallized ginger, if you wish.

Serves 10-12

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Off to the Races!

August 20, 2014

Hear the words “Sonoma” and “race” in the same sentence and most will think of Sonoma Raceway — home to nascar, vintage car rallies, and the IndyCar Grand Prix coming up this weekend.

Toyota/Save Mart 350But say those same words to a local kid, the young at heart, or a neighborhood gardener nursing a vegetable bed replete with a bumper crop of summer squash, and the correlation will likely be an entirely different one.

Zucchini Race Close-UpThe Sonoma Zucchini Races, now in their 26th year, offer a challenge that many around here find it difficult to refuse — the opportunity to transform the best of their late-season summer squash into fashionable locomotives, then send them hurtling down a ramp before a crowd of spectators. The competition is being held twice this year, the first (shown here) took place at the Sebastiani Winery on the first Friday evening in August, the next is scheduled for this coming Tuesday night at our weekly farmers’ market on the Sonoma Plaza.  The event features a contest in two parts, the first based on the creativity of the “car” design, the second on their faculty for speed.

Gage entered this dandy he nicknamed “Wide Load,” featuring a compact, dark green zucchini expertly secured to the back of his miniature Ford pick-up truck.

IMG_0994 - Version 2He was really quite proud of his creation, even presenting it with mock humility to the neighbors, before we set off for Sebastiani Winery where the competition is now held. Once we arrived at the winery lawn and he caught a glimpse of some of the other entrants, however, his confidence took a nose dive. He furtively set his car atop the small racers table and side-stepped away while whistling in the air, quick to disassociate himself with what had suddenly become a regretably simple contraption. Indeed, you wouldn’t believe the lengths some ardent gardeners (and probably a few impassioned produce section shoppers) will go to in the effort to make the choicest zucchini they can find both handsome and swift.

There was a flamingo-driven princess carriage and a polka-dotted army jeep with zucchini in drag,


a chauffeured baby blue Bentley with cherry tomato-head zucchini people, and a zucchini-mastered high-octane antique car with contraband scooter wheels.


There were also caterpillars, monster trucks, surfboards, flatbeds, and butterflies — more than 2 dozen entrants of every shape and size.

IMG_1062Sonoma folks truly go all out with the construction of their “cars” for this annual challenge, especially knowing that as much weight is now given to creativity as to alacrity.  Judges perused the cars for unique design and off-beat construction prior to the race (especially since many of the cars seem to disassemble on their way down the ramp). They tended to prefer racers like those (see above left) that made the most of each squashes natural shape — peculiar contortions that can really only be wrought in home gardens. But it was this Woody-topped yellow squash farmer truck at right, with its flatbed trailer toting a quartet of green zucchinis (shown above), that stole Best of Show. 

The actual race makes up the second part of the challenge, pitting 4 racers of the same size group against one another, then finishing with a grand prix incorporating the winners of each heat. Zucchini racers which featured large wheels and long bodies seemed to do the best. Monster truck tires and compact discs made a popular and surprisingly swift base upon which to navigate the steep ramp.


The title of Grand Champion went to the red antique car redux above, which relied on the weight of its metal frame and swift scooter wheels for indomitable speed.

IMG_1606 - Version 2Now, as we all know, relegating your summer squash to race car status is not the only thing you can do with a bumper crop. Since each springtime zucchini seedling seems to produce more than a few bushels of squash come August, zucchini dishes tend to make up a good part of our weekly menu around this time of year. I cook up a lot of zucchini “spaghetti” since it’s so easy to make but, especially when my squashes get really big like this one, my go-to favorite is always lasagna. I employ my mandoline or a sharp knife to slice only the meaty part of each zucchini into thin, lasagna noodle-like strips, then use them in addition to (or as a substitute for) the actual pasta. I’ll often incorporate a turkey bolognese (as in the recipe below), but am just as likely to keep it vegetarian by incorporating a chunky tomato sauce instead of meaty bolognese and adding garlicky steamed spinach mixed with ricotta as an extra layer.

This recipe for Zucchini Lasagna with Turkey Bolognese is my kids’ favorite and was even well received by students who ordered it from Country Lunch Box (many of whom would not regularly touch zucchini with a 10-foot pole). My nephew proclaimed it “The Best Lasagna” he had ever tasted, (although I think I made that one with ground beef). In any case, you can swap out the turkey for beef, or fiddle with the layers in any way you think your family might like. Just stick with the meaty part of the zucchini, avoiding the seedy center which can be mushy when baked.

IMG_1466Finally, make sure to top your casserole with a creamy layer of béchamel and nicely browned mozzarella cheese. It will smell and look great when you take it from the oven, and even confirmed zucchini-abstainers may be willing to take a bite.

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Zucchini Lasagna with Turkey Bolognese

1/4 cup unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk, heated until steaming
3 oz. grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and ground pepper to taste

Turkey Bolognese
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes
1 1/4 lb. ground turkey
1 jar (about 24 oz.) tomato or marinara sauce
1/2 teaspoon dried basil

2 lbs. zucchini
1/2 package (about 4 oz.) no-boil lasagna noodles
1 container (14 oz.) ricotta cheese
4 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese (about 1 cup)

Make the Bechamel: Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Whisk in the heated milk. Continue to cook, stirring often, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in Parmesan until melted. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Make the Bolognese: Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring often, for 1 minute longer. Add the ground turkey and cook, stirring to break up the meat, until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Pour off the fat. Stir in the tomatoes and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and dried basil. Bring to a simmer and simmer, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

While the sauce is simmering, cut the zucchini. Using a sharp knife or mandoline fitted with a slicing blade, cut the zucchini lengthwise into thin strips, stopping to rotate each squash when you reach its seedy center. Reserve the centers for another use. Set the zucchini “noodles” aside.

Preheat oven to 375o. Lightly oil a 9 x 13″ baking dish. To assemble the lasagna, spread a thin layer of bolognese over the dish bottom. Using each remaining ingredient (except the mozzarella) twice in the layering of the lasagna, top the bolognese with even layers of pasta, béchamel, zucchini, bolognese, ricotta, pasta, bolognese, ricotta and zucchini. Top the zucchini evenly with the remaining béchamel, then sprinkle evenly with the mozzarella.

Bake until pasta is tender and cheese is golden brown, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool for about 5 minutes, then serve hot.

Serves 10-12




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I’m back!

August 4, 2014

I know. It’s been awhile! Did you think I’d left the sun-dappled hills of my cherished Sonoma?Sonoma Vineyards in the Summertime

No, of course not! I’ve merely been delayed by a year that has been wonderfully busy for me, but sadly not so for Sonoma Family Cook. It has had to take a comfortable back seat to a series of other fruitful endeavors, both editorial and culinary. I’ve penned my way through two cookbook projects as a ghostwriter over the last several months. I’ve also worn my wooden spoon to a stub starting a little business, Country Lunch Box, providing healthy lunches to school kids here in beautiful Sonoma Valley.

I’ve been fortunate to work with Oxmoor House on both my recent editorial projects. Oxmoor House is the Birmingham, Alabama-based book publishing division of Southern Progress Corporation — the publisher also responsible for magazines such as Southern Living, Cooking Light, Real Simple and Sunset. The editors there confirm all they say is true about southern hospitality. They are warm, wonderfully tactful, preface every conversation with a few polite entreaties as to my weekend or the weather, then quietly get down to business. I’ve absolutely loved working with them.

Allison Fishman TaskLast fall, they introduced me to the indefatigable and immensely positive Allison Fishman Task, host of Yahoo Channel’s Blue Ribbon Hunter and (then) brand spanking new mother of two twin boys.  This is Allison (at left), about to munch on what looks like a teriyaki-glazed Turkey leg— just the type of fare she comes upon in tramping through food festivals across the country to happily sample each region’s award-winning specialties. I helped her with the text for her book, Lighten Up America! in which she provides her own healthier take on some of the classic American recipes she discovers.

Next, Oxmoor paired me with two 12-year-old cooking phenoms based right here in Sonoma. I worked with Audrey and Lilly Andrews (a.k.a. The Twin Chefs) on their upcoming Fall 2014 release, We (Heart) Cooking, putting into words their you-can-do-it philosophy and innovative cooking style and editing their recipes into an easy-to-follow, kid-friendly style.

The Twin Chefs

Where afternoons have been wonderfully full of the written word, mornings are spent in the kitchen. And, not just any kitchen…the updated scullery at The General’s Daughter,

The Generals Daughterthe 1864 Victorian once inhabited by General Mariano Vallejo’s daughter, Natalia, and her husband, vintner Attila Haraszthy of Buena Vista Winery. There, I’ve found a home for my little lunch business that, on a good day, serves up nearly 100 kid-size meals.

IMG_0943Oh, the things I’ve learned this year! Having already written two kids cookbooks, and raised three of my own (the youngest now 12), I’m more informed now than ever before about what exactly they will eat. It’s about more than just limiting spice or avoiding any speck of green. Kids like options. They like fun. And they prefer homemade. As I’ve always said, if you want to know what kids like to eat, you just have to think like one. IMG_1055Grilled chicken is good, chicken-on-a-stick is better. Fresh apple wedges are sort of ho-hum, spiral-cut apple is a winner. Heck, even zucchini gets a thumbs up when it’s shaved into noodle-like strips on a mandoline then tossed with spaghetti to look like pasta. And, a simple holiday-inspired treat offered just once a month goes a long way towards making the lunch cook a very popular person indeed.

The kids especially loved my taco and quesadilla bars, grill days, teriyaki bowls, homemade soup and grilled cheese, and just about anything chicken. I served up chicken-on-a-stick in tremendous quantities (although safety compelled me to dispense with the sticks when kids starting poking themselves, so now it’s really just chicken). I did a riff on a Parmesan-infused recipe for crispy chicken fingers that Tyler Florence makes for his son that was pretty popular, but this recipe for chicken satay with peanut sauce is the favorite of my own kids and a much-ordered item on the school menu too. The coconut milk in the marinade makes the chicken nice and tender, and the peanut sauce is one of the better ones I’ve tried. The secret is in using only the old-fashioned style of peanut butter which lends its nubby consistency to the sauce. It could use a little more chile paste, but the kids like it mild so that’s how I make it.

IMG_0127Easy Chicken Satay
½ cup coconut milk
1 clove garlic, minced
1½ teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon salt, or to taste
½ teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste
Juice of ½ lime
1½ lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Best Peanut Sauce
1 can (13.5 oz) full-fat, unsweetened coconut milk
¾ cup unsweetened natural creamy peanut  butter
¾ cup sugar
½ cup water
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3-4 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
½ tablespoon salt
Juice of ½ lime

In a non-reactive bowl or large, lock-top plastic bag, mix coconut milk, garlic, brown sugar, curry powder, salt, pepper and lime juice. Set aside.

Cut chicken breasts lengthwise into long ¾-inch-wide strips. Using a meat pounder, pound chicken strips until about ¼-inch thick. Add chicken to coconut milk marinade. Cover with plastic wrap or seal shut in a lock-top plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 1 day.

 While the chicken is marinading, make the peanut sauce. In a medium saucepan, combine the coconut milk, peanut butter, sugar, water, vinegar, curry paste, and salt. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, whisking frequently. Remove from the heat. Let cool to warm or room temperature. Stir in the lime juice just before serving. (Sauce can be stored, covered in the refrigerator, for up to 2 weeks. Bring to room temperature or reheat before serving.)

Preheat a grill to medium-high heat. Soak 12-16 bamboo skewers in water to cover for at least 15 minutes to prevent them from burning. Remove chicken from marinade and thread onto water-soaked skewers.

Grill chicken skewers, turning once or twice, until golden brown and cooked through, 6-8 minutes total cooking time. Remove from the heat and serve with the peanut sauce.

 Serves 4-6



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A Picnic on the Bluffs of Bodega Head

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Here’s what I like about cake: it can be as plain or as elegant as the occasion demands. This dense olive oil variety studded with sweet shards of orange zest is no exception.

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A Quiche for Easter Brunch

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Shaved asparagus spears, tender leeks, and salty pancetta contribute to a dense quiche, full of springtime flavor. It’s equally delicious served warm from the oven or at room temperature.

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Flowers in the Vineyards and on the Plate

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Colorful wheels of fresh citrus and a sprinkling of edible blooms top tender watercress, thin shards of fennel, and celery spirals in this spring-inspired salad.

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Big Soft Pretzels

February 1, 2013

When I was in high school and college, I often made these soft pretzels for munching on during Sunday football. The recipe is based on one from Bon Appétit’s Favorite Restaurant Recipes cookbook (1982), which shared dishes from their (still hot!) R.S.V.P. column of “reader requests and editor favorites”. The recipe came from Sturgis Pretzel […]

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Game Day Chili

January 31, 2013

This time, my seasonally-inspired recipe has more to do with football than garden bounty. The 49ers meet the Ravens for the Superbowl this Sunday in New Orleans. This crowd-pleasing chili is my go-to recipe for just such an occasion. It’s best made a day or so ahead, then reheated on the day of the game. […]

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A Fresh Look at Brussels Sprouts

December 15, 2012

Shaved Brussels sprouts form the base for this flavorful slaw. Topped with a richly toasted almonds and grated egg, then finished with a citrusy vinaigrette, this simple salad is the type of recipe contributing to Brussels sprouts current culinary renaissance and growing popularity.

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Peaches of Indian Summer

September 26, 2012

Fresh peaches partner with baby arugula, julienned jicama, and toasted pine nuts in this light summer salad. Lightly dressed with a Mango and Golden Balsamic Vinaigrette.

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