CIA- Day 1- Wineries

Unbelievable. I just need a place where I can write down my experience because even with just a day under my belt, the trip has been worth it. I could easily post to FB. However, sometimes I feel some people may think it’s bragging. I know I am lucky, spoiled in fact but I so needed this!!

I started my day by going to 3 different wineries. Before I left the hotel I was a bit anxious about going to tastings by myself. Felt like a dork! But as I left my hotel and ventured down the HWY- everything just clicked. Oh how I love the west coast. Love the mountains, the greenery. I appreciate the landscape and do miss it.

My first stop was Caymus- in honor of our sweet 10-year-old lab. I learned that Chuck Wagner has 4 kids and 3 of them have their own wines. I had no idea that the chardonnay Mer Soleil was a Wagner family wine. Then I moved onto Round Pond- which I really enjoyed. I had a nice young guy who took me through several of their wines and olive oils! I definitely found an option here. Lastly I went to Alpha Omega. Really pretty winery but my tasting was just an average experience and I thought the wines were good… but not sure great. Again, I am such a Novice that maybe I missing great wineries. My cousin told me that a lot about the tastings has to do with your experience there and with the person. I think he’s right!

Oh wait, I know what you want to know … did i really DRINK all those wines before heading to my class? NO- I tried to be discreet and spit them out. The wineries offered this HUGE and very obvious spittoons. I chose a Starbucks cup. No one had any idea!

After the wineries I headed to lunch at the Farmstead which was really amazing. A warm Burreta with their house made olive oil and yellow beets. AMAZING!

Then my day actually began! More details to come.

Bake on.

TWD- Semolina Bread

I love making bread!  Okay, honestly, I love eating homemade bread that has just been pulled from the oven!

It didn’t take much to get me fired up to do this TWD recipe.  As you know by now, I can’t post the full recipe but you can find the full recipe HERE and HERE.  You could also check out Dorie Greenspan’s book … it’s awesome!

Let’s get started!

Today, we will use the food processor for the entire recipe.  I LOVE THAT!  I can wash all the parts in the dishwasher.  That is KEY!  I hate doing dishes.  When I say ALL, I obviously don’t mean the base with the cord.  I KNOW my readers are smarter than that, even those first timers in the kitchen!

In order to start this bread you must create a “sponge.”  I know, I had never heard of that either until I started to make breads.  It’s basically yeast, water and a small amount of flour. You whisk those ingredients together in a small bowl and then let them rise – covered for about 2 hours until doubled.

After the sponge has risen, it’s time to add in the rest of the dry ingredients.   For the flour portion we are going to use Semonlina flour.  You would normally find that in pastas if you are wondering where you have heard of that word before.

Then you let the dough rise (covered) for another 2 hours for what bakers call the “First Rise”, until it doubles in size. I always put mine in a large see-through bowl so I can tell when it’s doubled.

After it’s doubled in size, you literally flatten the dough with a few punches (no kidding).  Then gently tuck the edges under and shape it  into a rectangle.  Place the loaf on a parchment lined baking sheet and let it rise again, uncovered for another 2 hours before baking it.  The last step, which I thought was cool, is to take a new razor blade or very sharp knife and slice 3-4 diagonal slash lines on the top for an artisan look.

Bake until the inside reaches 210 degrees.  I know, who knew that there was a temperature on bread too.  I use my same $8 digital thermometer that I use for checking temperatures on proteins. (fish, chicken, pork or red meat)

This recipe was really easy and tasted great.  Very light dinner bread or great for toast.

Enjoy and Bake On!


Homemade Vanilla Extract- from Organic Costa Rican Beans!

I love all things Vanilla and use several bottles of vanilla extract over the course of a year because of all my baking!

This past August I was down in Costa Rica at our place for a week trip without the kids or the husband!  (SO MUCH FUN!)  While  I was walking in town, I popped into a local store and discovered organic vanilla beans for sale.  I asked more about them and discovered that the farm,  Villa Vanilla Farm, was just an hour away.

After  mentioning it to my friend Kimberly who lives in Jaco full-time, she quickly said “Let’s GO!”   I met Kimberly about 4 years ago and I feel so lucky to have her as a friend.  She is always up for an adventure, an amazing listener, an exceptional pizza maker (maybe she can guest blog for me!) and extremely generous.  Our “about” an hour journey turned out to be “about” 2 hours!  It is just 30 miles east of Quepos but the roads that led us there were not exactly paved.

Walking through the farm was really educational as we were able to see where the orchids grew.  (Albeit “someone” was a bit worried about the potential of walking amongst snakes, too!)   We saw how they harvest a variety of plants and how they process the vanilla beans.  I walked away with white peppercorn, oregano, cocoa nibs, cinnamon and several dozen vanilla beans.

I have always heard it is easy to make vanilla extract,  little did I know that it would literally only take two ingredients.  VODKA AND VANILLA!  Now I must confess that there is a bit of trial and error.  I should have made a small batch first to see how it all would work.  (Ratio of beans to vodka.)

1. Pick your favorite brand of Vodka.  (It doesn’t have to be expensive, but should not be flavored.) I choose Tito’s for this batch because it gets  high ratings.


2. Find a glass jar with a lid … I used some glass jelly jars and mason jars.

3. Slice your vanilla beans in half and place about 3 (jelly)/ 6-8 (mason) in the jar, depending on the size of your jar. (I should have used more with my first batch and have learned that different varieties of vanilla beans are going to infuse differently.)

Beans in Vodka

4. Add vodka almost up to the top, you want enough room at the top so when you shake the bottle it will mix.  (I had to learn this lesson too!!)

5. Place jar in a cool dark place and shake vigorously every week until it becomes the rich brown color that you want.  Mine has taken about 16 weeks and could still use some extra time.  Once your are comfortable with the color (it will continue to darken over time) you can pour the vanilla into nicer bottles if you want to give them as gifts.

After 5 weeks

6.  I purchased several 6 oz dark glass bottles and filled them.  (Next time I would buy larger bottles.)  I am still looking for some cool labels to put on them.  My dear friends in CR got torn christmas labels instead!


The best part of this vanilla extract is that over time you can just keep adding vodka or more beans to it.  (Some recipes only require the seeds, so don’t throw the bean out.  Stick it in some sugar to make vanilla sugar or in your bottle of extract.)

Shake on and then Bake on!


I’m still here …

Hello friends-

I was so excited for my boys to both be in school! I dreamed about hours of baking and writing … okay and EATING!  However, I have only accomplished two of those things.  I am assuming with my absence you can guess which two!

I even have a few posts that are almost done, just waiting … give me a week and I’ll be back with you. Thanks for your patience.


Ultimate Banana Bread!

We all love banana bread, right?  I have tried so many recipes over the years … most of them are good.  THIS one is great!  I found the recipe through my Cooks Illustrated – July/August 2010 issue.

I am not going to lie  …  this recipe does have a NEW step that I had never done before.  I had to do a “minor attitude adjustment” while making it, and I am glad that I did!  You literally microwave the bananas to get juice out of them, or you can just use some that have been previously FROZEN.  I usually buy bananas in bulk and am left with a few that get too ripe to eat anyway.  So, I unpeel them, put them in a freezer bag and pop them in the freezer.  I have been using them for my morning smoothie, but now this recipe will use up those bananas, too!

Let’s get started!  Pre-heat Convection oven to 350 degrees and I’d recommend melting your butter now, too.

  • 1 3/4 c (8 – 3/4 oz) all purposed four
  • 1 t baking soda
  • 1/2 t salt
  • 6 average size, very ripe bananas (2.5lbs)
  • 8T unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly (I highlighted this because I always miss these types of before steps!) 
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3/4 cup (5 1/4 oz) PACKED light brown sugar
  • 1 t vanilla extract
  • 2 t granulated sugar
  • 1/2 c walnuts, toasted and chopped (OPTIONAL)

Okay, for the new bakers out there, let’s chat about something before we get started.  When you look at the above recipe, you’ll notice that there are cup measurements and metric measurements.  When baking, accuracy is really important, so most professional bakers will weigh their ingredients.  You can imagine if there were 5 of us in a kitchen, and we all measured out one cup of all purpose flour.  I bet if we weighed each of those, they would each be different.  You can buy a scale online or at any kitchen shop for about $30.  Once you get used to it, you will start to use it all the time!

One final note about flour … WHAT AN EXCITING TOPIC!  HA- HA!!  Did you know that different types of flour have different levels of protein?   Are you wondering … WHAT IS PROTEIN AND WHY DO I CARE?  It actually matters, as flour with more protein will make a denser bread.  Even different brands (generic vs. King Arthur) will have different levels of protein for the same all purpose flour.  IT DOESN’T MATTER what brand you use, just be consistent with what you buy so the outcome is the same.

To begin, in a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt.  Set Aside.

Place your ripened bananas in a microwave safe bowl, cover with plastic wrap (poke a few holes to vent) and microwave for about 5 minutes.

Transfer the bananas to a strainer over a bowl and let sit for about 10 minutes.

You should get at least 1/2 c of juice.  I got about a cup!  (If you freeze your bananas, let them defrost for about 4 hours and VOILA you can skip the microwaving step because you will have plenty of liquid.  You can move on to the step below and start to boil your liquid.)

Pour the 1/2 c. banana liquid into a small saucepan and cook over medium-high heat until it reduces down.  WATCH that it doesn’t boil over …  (apparently it’s a mess to clean up!!!)  The recipe says 5 minutes, mine took longer because I had so much liquid. ( I didn’t read the instructions where I only needed a cup) 😦

While the liquid is reducing, place your cooked bananas into a large bowl, then add the reduced liquid when ready and mash until smooth.

Whisk in the melted, but cooled butter (if the butter is too hot, it will COOK the eggs … GROSS), eggs, brown sugar and vanilla.

Pour the banana mixture into the flour mixture and stir with a spatula or wooden spoon until combined. (a few white streaks from the flour are fine.)

Scrape batter into a prepared 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 pan.  (Prepared means, PAM, or lightly butter bottom and sides.)  My pan isn’t this exact size … don’t stress about that.  Just know that your time may be off by a few minutes, so check it 5 minutes sooner.

Bake for 45-60 minutes.  I use a large wooden skewer to check my bread.  You want it to come out clean.  I check at 40 minutes and then every 5 minutes after that. Overcooked banana bread is DRY.

The first time I made this bread, I took it out after it was done and thought that it was really brown and that I had cooked it TOO long. I was so disappointed after all that work.   However, when I sliced into it, I discovered that it was perfect and moist!  This recipe uses only brown sugar, thus the darker color.

Slice it up and don’t expect left overs!

Oh yea, and hit the gym!  All this cooking is making my jeans tight!


How to Split a Vanilla Bean …

I thought I would start doing a few technique blogs.  Short and Sweet!

Check out the attached video for a “how to” on splitting a vanilla bean, it’s two steps and will really BOOST the flavor of ice cream, crème brûlée, pastry cream, whipping cream etc.

If you only need the seeds, you can save the pod and put it in your container of sugar to create a vanilla sugar.

Please let me know if you have a suggestion of something you would like to see!

Split On!

Gnocchi with Brown Butter and Fresh Sage

Last year I had the opportunity to go to Yountville, CA (Napa) for several days.   While I was there I had dinner at Michael Chiarello’s restaurant called Bottegga.  I choose the Gnocchi since it was the only vegetarian dish on our preselected menu.  I had tasted it before, but it had been the store-bought frozen kind and tasted like a watered down, chewy piece of an old biscuit.  YUM … insert sarcasm!

The gnocchi arrived looking like what I had remembered, although an amazing presentation came along with it.  I took my fork and knife and went in for my first bite.  The instant the gnocchi touched my mouth I knew something was different.  I literally didn’t chew … it just melted in my mouth like the cotton candy of my childhood.  It was awesome and literally resembled little marshmallows.  I devoured my meal.   Honestly, being a vegetarian, it’s not that often that I get an AMAZING meal.

So, I knew I would have to try to make Gnocchi.  Over the course of several months I would pull gnocchi recipes from magazines and online resources.  My heart knew that I would have to try the one from the restaurant in Napa, Botegga’s, first.

MOMENT OF TRUTH!!!  What I failed to realize after all my research on Botegga’s website was that the kind of Gnocchi I had WASN’T POTATO!  I mean, this recipe is really good and the sage brown butter is awesome, but it was NOT even close to what I had in Yountville.  After two attempts, it dawned on me that maybe the menu we had at the restaurant was different because we were a larger group.  VIOLA!  It was RICOTTA GNOCCHI (WHO KNEW?) with a red sauce.  Oh yea … haha … go ahead and laugh … because my poor family will still be eating potato gnocchi for months since each recipe makes about 50!

Here is the POTATO GNOCCHI and the Brown Butter Sage recipe from Michael Chiarello’s. Click here!

Mise En Place: Preheat Convection Oven to 375

Please note that this recipe makes a TON.  You could easily half the recipe or freeze the extra’s for SEVERAL meals! 

  • 2 lbs russet potatoes (about 5-6) You’ll want to weigh them if you can.
  • 1 c coarse kosher salt
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 c fresh grated parmesan
  • 1/2 t salt
  • pinch of ground pepper
  • pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 to 1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

On a baking sheet, pour about 1 cup of kosher salt in the middle of the sheet so it mounds up to about a 1/2 inch.  Set your potatoes on the salt and bake for about an hour.  (Please forgive the salt on top, I had just washed them and they were still wet!)

Supposedly you put the potatoes on the salt so that you don’t get a hard spot on the bottom. (No idea at all why that is important since you only want the inside of the potato anyway.)  Once the potatoes have softened similar to  a baked potato, remove from the oven.

As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to touch, cut them lengthwise and scoop out the flesh into a food mill or ricer. (I don’t think you could use a masher, as you really need the potatoes smooth.)

In a large bowl, gently combine the processed potatoes, egg yolks, grated parmesan, salt, pepper and nutmeg with a fork. Add a cup of flour and lightly mix the flour into your potato mixture.  Once it’s pulled together, you can dump it out onto a  floured work surface and begin to gently knead it.

If it feels sticky, add another 1/4 c of flour, but the less flour you add, the less dense the gnocchi will be.

Once it’s combined, roll the dough into a log that is about 3 inches wide – cut into 8 pieces.

Working quickly, (you don’t want the dough to get too warm)  roll each section into a 1/2 inch wide log, dust the flour off with a pastry brush.

Then cut each piece to about 1/2 inch long. (At this point you can freeze them by first placing them on a parchment lined and lightly floured baking sheet.  After freezing them for at least 4 hours,  place in a freezer bag.  No need to defrost when you are ready to use them, just follow the directions below.)

If you want to be fancy prior to freezing, you can press each little gnocchi by using the back of a fork to give it ridges.

To cook, bring a large pot of salted water to a gentle boil and place about 15 pieces in the pot (more or less dependent on the size of your pot and the amount you need to serve).  Let them rise to the surface and then cook an additional 2 minutes.  Serve promptly.

While my water was heating up for a boil, I started on the sauce below.

Brown Butter Sage Sauce:
4T unsalted butter (this is a lot of butter, I halved it when I made it again)

10 fresh sage leaves (don’t bother if you don’t have fresh … it won’t taste the same)

1/2 lemon juice

1/4 c grated fresh parmesan

In a small sauce pan melt the butter on medium heat, stir occasionally until it starts to turn a light brown color – this will give the butter a nutty flavor (4-6 minutes).

Once it changes color, remove from the burner and stir in the sage leaves.  NOTE TO SELF: make sure your sage is completely dry before putting it into super hot BUTTER!  When I made this I had just walked out to my garden and clipped some sage leaves. I rinsed them off and then started to cut the leaves into the pan … when suddenly it SPIT HOT BUTTER BACK AT ME.  Took me about 30 seconds to realize that my sage was still wet from washing it off.  Lesson learned!

Personally, I like the leaves whole, but you can also slice them into smaller pieces if you prefer.  Keep warm until you are ready to serve. When you are ready to plate the gnocchi, drizzle the warm sage butter on top, add a small squeeze of lemon and grate a good  parmesan for your garnish.


This was really good, and I do love that because it makes so many I can have it ready in the freezer on a night that I don’t want to spend time making a side.

Cook on and don’t lite YOURSELF on FIRE!


PS:  Some pictures were taken by my son, this one was his favorite!