Cooking for a Crowd – Lessons Learned

Cooking for a Crowd – Lessons Learned

I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving holiday. I really thought through my menu and preparations this year a bit differently because I was cooking for a few folks I had never hosted before. Here is a rundown of what worked well and what did not.

IMG_2713A Smoking Hot Turkey
Smoking the bird was a smart move this year because it freed up my double ovens for more sides. I concocted the brine in advance and immersed the turkey overnight in a big Gatorade cooler. Come morning all I had to do was rinse it off and place it onto my preheated smoker. The only hitch was my turkey reached optimal temperature sooner than I had calculated. The bird had plenty of time to rest and everyone raved about the delicious flavor. I just wish it had been a bit hotter by the time I served it.
Lesson Learned: Don’t overestimate cooking time!

IMG_2710Dessert Comes First
I made my pies the night before Thanksgiving this year. I know this is common, but I’ve always hesitated because some desserts taste so much better fresh out of the oven. Unfortunately I was up past midnight because my Heavenly Pie took much longer to make than I had planned for. Guest reviews were highly favorable!
Lesson Learned: Start earlier in the day!




Too Many Sides Sink the Buffet
Because I wanted a nice variety of side dishes for guests, I may have gone a bit overboard. I prepared green beans, brussels sprouts, two kinds of stuffing, cranberry sauce, rolls, two kinds of sweet potatoes, acorn squash, mashed potatoes, gravy, and corn casserole. It was a ton of work and even more dishes to wash! I think my friends were a bit overwhelmed by all the choices and walked away from the table overly full. Next time I will trim back the menu!
Lesson Learned: Sometimes, less is more!

Planning and preparation was fun this year since I knew I wanted to blog about my cooking. But in the future, I will cut myself a little slack. Either that, or I need to hire a home sous chef!

What were your wins this year around the holiday table? Feel free to comment and share your thoughts!

My Top 5 Thanksgiving Pies Revealed

My Top 5 Thanksgiving Pies Revealed

In my previous article I listed my favorite pies for Thanksgiving David Letterman style, starting with number 10. Here is the rest of my list, including the recipes. I hope you like them! Let me know if you have any of the same recipes on your list. Be sure to include photos if you give one of these a try.

5. Chess Pie
Chess Pie is an old southern favorite. The beauty of chess pie is it’s very versatile. You can add one or two other ingredients to alter the flavor. Lemon or chocolate are the two most popular variations, though I’ve seen orange, coconut, and even peanut butter. There are a couple of different camps out there. Some recipes call for buttermilk and others use whole milk. I like both, but my favorite recipe comes from Southern Living,

4. Peanut Butter Pie
My favorite peanut butter pie combines elements from a couple different recipes. What I really love is that it does not use a typical pie crust, (which as you may recall, I am hopelessly inept as making) rather it is a solid chocolate shell. Yum! This does contain a raw egg. If you are uncomfortable with raw egg, you could leave it out.

Ingredients: small bag semi sweet chocolate chips, 8 oz. softened cream cheese, 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter, 1 cup powdered sugar, 1 egg, 1 pint heavy whipping cream, chocolate bar for making curls

Melt chocolate chips and pour into glass pie dish. Spread evenly on bottom and sides. Freeze. Beat softened cream cheese and peanut butter until smooth. Add powdered sugar and egg; beat until creamy. Whip heavy cream separately. (You could also use cool whip.) Fold whipped cream into peanut butter mixture. Pour into pie shell and refrigerate. Sprinkle with chocolate shavings before serving.

3. Easy No-bake Cheesecake Pie
This is my go-to pie throughout the year. It is super simple to throw together and is always a hit.

Ingredients: graham cracker crust, 8 ounces softened cream cheese, 3/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp vanilla, 1 pint heavy cream (also called whipping cream)

Beat cream cheese until smooth. Add sugar and vanilla and keep beating. Slowly add heavy cream and beat til thick and fluffy. Pour into cooled pie crust. Chill 24 hours. Top with canned fruit.

2. Heavenly Pie
This pie is light and delicious. It also takes considerable time and patience to make. I guess that’s why they say good things take time! The meringue crust makes an impressive base and the lemony whipped filling is pure heaven…thus the name! It is an old family recipe. Mine is never quite as ethereal as my cousin’s which is why it was on my menu this year. I need the practice! I’ve explained by steps.

IMG_2708Ingredients: 1 cup sugar, 1/4 tsp cream of tartar, 4 egg whites
Beat whites until stiff. Slowly add sugar and cream of tartar. When meringue makes glossy peaks, spread over bottom and sides of well buttered 9″ pie plate. Bake at 275 degrees for 1 hour. Cool. See image on left.

Ingredients: 4 egg yolks, 1/2 cup sugar, 3 Tbs lemon juice, whipped cream
Over a double boiler beat the egg yolks. Add the sugar and lemon juice. Continue stirring nonstop until thickened (8-10 minutes). Cool. Fold in 1 cup whipped cream. Pile into cooled pie shell. Chill 12-24 hours. Top with more whipped cream.

Drum roll please! And now for Bradley Nierenberg’s top choice pie choice for Thanksgiving…the one I bake every year…


1. Derby Pie
Are you surprised? I know this is not a typical choice for Thanksgiving! I was sold after a friend from Louisville served this to me once, many years ago. There are many many versions of this Kentucky favorite, and they are all delicious. I prefer a version without bourbon, but that is entirely up to you! This is my friend’s original recipe.

Ingredients: 1 pie shell, 1 cup chocolate chips, 1 cup English walnuts (broken), 2 eggs beaten, 1 cup sugar, 1 stick butter (melted and cooled), 1/2 cup flour, 1 tsp vanilla

Mix sugar and flour, then eggs, add butter, nuts, chocolate chips, and vanilla. Pour into unbaked pie shell and bake for 35-45 minutes at 350 degrees. If a toothpick comes out too gooey, bake longer. It depends upon your oven.

Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving! Please let me know if you give any of these a try. I would love to hear what you think!

Bradley Nierenberg’s Top Ten Thanksgiving Pies (Part 1)

Bradley Nierenberg’s Top Ten Thanksgiving Pies (Part 1)

piesForget the turkey and stuffing! When it comes to planning out my Thanksgiving meal, the first major decision I make is what kinds of pie will I serve! It’s not an easy choice considering how many delectable recipes are crammed into my old wooden recipe box. That’s one of the reason’s I invite extra people over for dessert – that means more pie!

10. Chocolate Cream Pie
This is my brother’s favorite, so if he is on the guest list, this one makes the list. There’s no actual recipe I follow since it is saved in my head. Ingredients: 1 box chocolate pudding (not instant), whole milk, heavy cream, graham crackers, sugar, butter.

Cook the pudding on your stove. Prepare a graham cracker crust (scratch is always best), and pour hot pudding into baked crust. refrigerate. Whip up heavy cream with some sugar. Top chilled pie with whipped cream and serve.

Hint: It is even better the next day for breakfast!

9. Apple Pie
I have not yet mastered traditional pie crust. I think it is because my Grandma’s is so perfect that any attempt I make falls short. Since I cannot seem to get regular pie crust “just right” I make apple pie using the French pie crust called Pate Brisee. I do not have an old family recipe. The best one I’ve turned out after trying many is from one of my favorite baking websites, Joy of Baking.” Here is Stephanie Jaworski’s recipe which cannot be improved upon IMO!

Hint: If you absolutely must improve upon this, I suggest warm caramel sauce over top. What the heck…you will eventually come out of your food coma, right?!?!

8. Frozen Pumpkin Pie

If you are not a huge fan of traditional pumpkin pie, this recipe might be palatable. I grew up eating this at my aunt’s house and so add it into my Thanksgiving rotation every few years. Ingredients: 1 baked pie shell, 1 cup plain pumpkin, 3/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/4 tsp each ginger/cinnamon/nutmeg, 1 quart vanilla ice cream, 1 cup heavy cream

Spread softened ice cream in shell and freeze. Mix all other ingredients except heavy cream. Whip cream and fold into pumpkin mixture. Spoon over ice cream in shell. Freeze. Simple and delicious.

Hint: Run you knife under hot water before making each cut and it should slide through more easily.

7. Maple-Pecan Pie
Maple syrup makes everything taste better, including pecan pie if you ask me! Ingredients: 1 deep dish pie crust, 1 cup pure maple syrup, 3/4 cup brown sugar, 3 eggs, 1/4 cup white sugar, 3 Tbs melted butter, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 Tbs flour, 1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans

Spread nuts over unbaked crust. Whisk together remaining ingredients. Pour filling over nuts. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.

Hint: If you use unsalted butter, you may want to add 1/4 tsp salt to the filling before you bake.

pumpkin-gooey-butter-cake6. Pumpkin Gooey Butter Cake
Okay, okay! I know this is clearly NOT a pie recipe. But it does include pumpkin and this is a Thanksgiving list after all. So if you are not a fan of pies, but love pumpkin, this may be the recipe for you. Warning: It is exceedingly sweet. If that’s not your thing, then skip to the next recipe.

One of my favorite homey cooks, Paula Deen, makes this cake. It’s an easy recipe to throw together and fills a 9×13. If you are serving a crowd, this one is sure to please. Here’s the link,

Hint: It’s called “gooey” for a reason. Do not over bake!


Stay tuned for Bradley Nierenberg’s five favorite pies! Be sure to comment on what your favorite Thanksgiving pies are!

Thanksgiving Sides – Tried and True or Something New

Thanksgiving Sides – Tried and True or Something New


I realized this morning that Thanksgiving is next week. By now I’ve usually hunted through my grandmother’s recipe box and pulled out all my tried and true favorites, created a shopping list, and planned out a cooking schedule. Somehow the holiday crept up on me and I honestly thought I had a couple more weeks.

With only a week and a half to go, I see an opportunity to skip the tried and true family favorites this year and scout out a few new side dishes and desserts. I recently joined a couple of Facebook cooking groups (The Home Chef’s Hangout and Real Cooks of Facebook) which have inspired me to try new things. The question remains, will I miss Gram’s cranberry relish, apple sausage dressing, and green bean bundles come Turkey Day?

My go-to website for finding recipes is always Epicurious. Though some of the recipes are a bit too complicated for my novice cooking skills, I find the reviews really helpful. Plus I love the pictures and breadth of choice. The slideshow for Make Ahead Side Dishes for Thanksgiving will be one place I pull ideas from this year.

Another great resource I like to use is Yummly. While many of the entrees are not as sophisticated as those I find on the Epicurious site, I like creating my own collections as a way of organizing recipes I’d like to try. As you can see, I’ve started collecting Thanksgiving Sides already!

I’m looking forward to trying something new and perhaps creating a few new traditions. Which Thanksgiving recipes do you still pull from your Gramma, Great Aunt, or even Mom? Feel free to share in the comments section. You can include your recipe unless it is a family secret!

Pumpkin Quesadillas — And No, This is Not an Oxymoron!

Pumpkin Quesadillas — And No, This is Not an Oxymoron!


I mentioned pumpkin quesadillas in an earlier blog which featured cooking with kale, and as you can see, I was not kidding. For some reason, I cannot get enough pumpkin flavoring whenever Fall rolls around, so here goes! Enjoy this Meatless Monday recipe from Rachael Ray:


Ingredients you will need:
2 cups of canned pure pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Caramelized red onions (if you go for that sort of thing)
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled (or your choice of cheese)
8 eight inch flour tortillas
½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted (or hazelnuts)
¼ cup of vegetable oil
Salt, pepper, cayenne pepper to taste

Foolproof* Directions (May not apply to ALL fools!):
These are seriously easy to make! I’d suggest saving them for a day when you need something quick. I added some caramelized red onions and cayenne, skipped the nuts, and it made these quite savory.

    1. In a bowl, mix pumpkin and cumin
    2. Spread the mixture over 4 tortillas
    3. Sprinkle them with cheese and nuts to taste. If you are not a huge fan of goat cheese (I fall into this category) the try using Mexican Cotija or Queso Fresco
    4. Place the remaining 4 tortillas on top
    5. Heat 1tbsp of oil in a large skillet, (preferably non-stick) on medium-low
    6. Cook quesadillas one at a time (medium heat), turning once (more if you’re impatient and like turning them), until browned. Takes about 3 minutes.
    7. Don’t forget to add more oil to the pan between each quesadilla. You could also use cooking spray.
    8. Cut into wedges and enjoy!

More Ideas for Quesadillas

Quesadilla Yummly Collection

Thought to have originated in colonial Mexico (so says Wikipedia), the quesadilla has Americanized over the years. This pumpkin recipe got me thinking about all the different ways you could make quesadillas other than the typical “cheese sandwich” ones. So I turned to one of my favorite foodie websites Yummly, and created a collection, I plan on trying some of these combinations and will keep you posted! In the meantime, feel free to add your favorite!

NEVER Buy Chicken Stock Again

NEVER Buy Chicken Stock Again

IMG_2644When I stop and consider how much money I’ve wasted on packaged chicken stock over the years, I cringe. It is loaded with sodium and yellow food coloring. How could I do that to my home cooking?

I saw the light back in 2012 when taking a knife skills cooking class in New York City. While learning the proper way to handle and use various knives, the instructor enlightened the students on how simple making your own stock really was.

I was converted. Here’s how I make mine. You can improve upon it however you’d like.

Waste Not, Want Not

Save every peeling, nub, core, seed, wilted, too soft to use in a salad vegetable you’ve got. Start a freezer bag and add to it whenever you are cooking with veggies. I save it all: onion peels (yes, the outer brown part contributes to a nice rich color), squash innards (seeds and all), carrot peels, wilted parsley, cauliflower cores. The sky’s the limit. Pack it in your freezer bag and wait for it to fill up.

In the meantime, save your chicken bones, chicken parts, wing tips, and whatever you’ve got. Store them in a separate freezer bag.

Watch Football While Stock Simmers

When you’ve got some bones and a gallon bag of veggies, throw them together in a stock pot (or deep pot), add a few peppercorns, bring to a boil, and then turn down the heat to simmer for a few hours. Sunday afternoons are a great time to make stock while watching football.

IMG_2642Let things cool off (including your temper if your team loses) and run your fresh stock though a strainer. At this point you could add the refuse to your compost pile, or if you don’t compost, trash it.

TIP: Here’s one more brilliant tip given to me by a friend. You see, I got to be so stock crazy, my freezer was filled with little tupperware containers. I barely had any room for ice cream! So he suggested I use freezer bags for my stock. Now, I zip them up, lay them flat until they freeze, then stack them against the side. They take up much less room and are easy to thaw under some warm water!

Note: If you are super eco-friendly and the thought of using plastic bags is painful, I reuse the veggie nub and chicken bone bags. I guess you could wash out and reuse the frozen stock ones too.

Cooking with Stock

You will need to make seasoning adjustments to your cooking with home-cooked stock because there’s no added salt to the real stuff.

That’s it. Enjoy! And let me know how you like it.