My Gingerbread Tradition

My love of cooking began at the age of seven when I cooked my first meal. Alone in the kitchen with my mother’s Joy of Cooking I made dinner: vegetable soup with a side of Pillsbury refrigerator biscuits. My mom was out of town and my father, who wasn’t much of a cook, was left in charge of dinner. So, after a few nights of his cooking I decided to take matters into my own hands. I don’t remember the soup being an overwhelming success, possibly because I added iceberg lettuce as a substitute for cabbage. However, the spark was lit and from then on, I began cooking on my own.

This was well before the internet or the Food Network. So, I used Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking to teach me everything. I tried cookies, small cakes and I worked my way up. Then one Christmas break I was looking for something to do. Feeling festive I decided I would take on a classic, making my own gingerbread house. The Joy of Cooking doesn’t have a recipe for gingerbread houses, but there was a recipe for gingerbread cookies. I worked to adapt the recipe to make a house. It took a few batches to get it right, but it worked. Pleased with my small gingerbread house, I began to bake more. Looking back, they were what made me fall in love with baking.

Put a pastry bag with royal icing in my hand and there is a deep sense of joy that comes over me. It doesn’t matter how messy my kitchen looks or how many things I have left to do on my holiday list. Every year I make time to bake another gingerbread house.

My daughters are now old enough to be a part of the fun. So this year we decided to try something new: a gingerbread church.  My favorite part was the Jolly Rancher stained glass windows, which shine when you turn on the mini lights I placed inside.

I recently found an older baking book called The Gingerbread Architect, which had lots of clever ideas about windows. They used melted candies like butterscotch and even attached sheet gelatin to make clear window panes.  I also loved their tip for using sour belts to cut out shingles and decorations. So I took some of their ideas and used it for our house.

The windows were fairly simple. I just crushed my Jolly Ranchers and then placed them inside my baked gingerbread wall. The candy will bake right into the window frame.

This is what my windows looked like when I first took them out of the oven and added the cross pieces..

Then I baked it at 350 degrees until the candy melted which was about 5 minutes. The key is to bake it on parchment paper, once the candy cools it is easy to peel back the paper. If you want to add a detail like the cross I made, I found it helps to melt the background color first. Then right after you take your gingerbread out of the oven add the additional featured candy pieces. The candy pieces will melt in and not spread if you wait to add them after baking the window base.

This is the back side of my church and bell tower.

It’s been a busy baking week in our house as my girls added their own creativity to the gingerbread village we made. I love displaying them on cake stands in my kitchen. It makes my cookbook collection look so festive!  If you want the recipe and a few more decorating tips for baking your own house then check out my post on Gingerbread with Kids.

So the tradition continues with a new generation of gingerbread bakers. Let holiday baking fun begin! Wishing you all a happy holiday season!

City Sidewalks Dressed in Holiday Style

The city sidewalks and houses are all dressed up in holiday style. Winter weather arrived a little early in Chicago this year, so I have been out early adding some evergreens to my front porch pots. I love this time of year all the garlands and twinkling lights. So, if you too are out holiday decorating, I thought I would share a little winter porch inspiration.

This classic colonial I passed had a lovely topiary trimmed with evergreens and berries. The snow and ice can make traditional gardening a little challenging this time of year, but these evergreen planters look beautiful.

This cute little southern home has a porch trimmed with beautiful poinsettias, cyclamens, and pansies. Evergreens aren’t well suited to some parts the south, but that just means you can add a few flowers. These planters have all the colors of the season and these plants will continue look good all winter long.

A more northern styled arrangement with birch and willow branches. The branches add some height to these elegant planters.


Want a more modern look? This layered planter that adds a festive, but not too over the top touch to this porch.

A walk downtown had more Christmas inspiration. Phillips Florist had the sidewalk lined with some lovely birch branch and evergreen pots. The florists usually plant their pots in rice hulls, which are great for cut branch arrangements since they can hold more water than traditional soil. However they lack the nutrients that live plants need, so I only recommend using rice hulls for cut branches.

Then Jane’s Blue Iris, another local florist, had a gorgeous mix of greenery with boxwood, magnolia, juniper, cedar and pine. Adding a wide variety of greenery allows you to add some color and texture. This arrangement is particularly eye catching because of the balanced asymmetric arrangement with the the spruce top on one side and staggered branches on the other.

So after admiring all these pretty planter, I took a little creative inspiration to create my own. I moved my small boxwoods indoors for the winter. I found some small Japanese cedar trees that I trimmed to look like mini spruce tops. I thought these cedars would look festive and I liked their silvery blue tinged needles. These cedar trees should tolerate the cold, but to keep my pots looking green a little longer I created some faux evergreen bases.  The great part about this project is that even if southern temperatures keep you from using real evergreens outdoors, you could still make an arrangement like this without worrying about it wilting in the sun. So here are a few tips for creating your own evergreen topiary bases.

 

First select a a large grapevine wreath to use as a base. Then purchased some faux greenery and pine cones from your local craft or floral supply store.

Here is a mix of greenery that I found at Michaels. I have also seen some pretty greenery from Magnolia home at Target.

Separated and cut your branches and berries into smaller pieces that you can arrange around your wreath.

It helps to place your largest greenery first. Make sure that you securely place the wired end into the grapevine.  Then add in your pinecones and berries. I arranged my branches so that they pointed up and out since it would be sitting in my pot.

Then one they were place around my topiary I added a few branches and additional pinecones to give it a more realistic look. You could also add a few extra pieces of greenery to trail down the pot a bit. I think these evergreen topiary wreaths would work well with any small tree or topiary.

Now that December is nearly here it’s time to embrace the joy of Christmas. Adding some greenery to your front door is easy way to welcome the winter season. So, no matter how frosty it gets where you live you can still add a little holiday style to your porch and planters.

Tales from the Table and Thanksgiving Traditions

Thanksgiving celebrates gratitude, family and food and in our house plenty of nostalgia. I love hearing about people’s holiday traditions. What kind of turkey do you cook? Or do you skip the turkey and make a more adventurous and less traditional main course?

My mom makes an excellent herb roasted turkey while my husbands’ family has a unique but equally delicious tradition of a breaded turkey fricassee. Then there are of course the side dishes. In our house the general rule is the more the merrier from my grandmother’s cheese onions and black cherry Jell-O salad to my great grandmother’s cornbread stuffing, my mom’s sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and green beans. Finally, there is dessert where there are usually three to four different pies and sometimes even a cake. When we are all together our family puts together quite a meal.

In all families change happens, so making new traditions is important too. Moving has meant that some years we can’t always make the grand event. I now have few new dishes of my own like turkey schnitzel with a beurre blanc and mashed potatoes. The four of us can only eat so much so I have edited the side dish list just a bit, but it’s still delicious.

However, the one tradition that I haven’t trimmed is setting the Thanksgiving table. I come from a long line of gracious hostesses, so even for a table of just four I will still pull out all the pretty dishes and create something beautiful. I can remember Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house. The table would be set with her brown and rust Spode dishes and a pretty flower arrangement. Flowers and just a few small touches can make any table holiday ready.

We tried something new last year, sharing what we were thankful for. My 5 year old daughter’s answer took us all by surprise  “robot unicorns.” It was too funny!

As I look back, I thought I might share a few of my favorite flowers. A bowl, a wooden box or even a hollowed-out pumpkin with a little floral foam and a grocery store bouquet can make a quick and pretty centerpiece. I have found that the way to instantly make any bouquet better is to buy extra greenery. Add in some small kale or some interesting leaves.

Add some boxwood clipping, cedar leaves or foliage from your garden to add interest and texture to your arrangement . I carved out this little pumpkin so it could fit a small jelly jar and then circled the base  of the arrangement with Dahlia leaves from my garden.

Use some pears, apples or mini pumpkins as place card holders and you have an inexpensive way to add something special to each place setting.

Grocery store blooms arranged in a simple wooden dough bowl from the craft store. I just lined the inside with small plastic containers that held my oasis or floral foam. An easy arrangement that only looks like it came from a fancy florist.

I am looking forward to setting my own table this week and sharing a meal with some of my favorite people. My girls and I will cook together while my husband periodically checks in to do a little “taste testing.”

Over the years, I have learned that the key ingredient for any holiday meal is laughter and a good sense of humor. I just remember the Thanksgiving when my grandmother the grand entertainer tried using multicolor mini marshmallows on the sweet potato casserole. The dish was a tutti fruitti mess but I still remember us all laughing about it. Those stories keep me grateful for blessings of family and time together. So even if all the togetherness and holiday stress have their moments, I will still love the happy chaos of it all. Happy Thanksgiving my friends!

My tiny kitchen helpers making their favorite chocolate pie a few years ago. This was our first Thanksgiving in Chicago. These are the moments that I love!

Reading and Eating: Julia Reed’s New Orleans Seafood Gumbo

Julia Reed's Seafood Gumbo Recipe

The cold winter weather is here and I am already feeling the chaos of the holidays. How is it that Thanksgiving is already right around the corner?  But as I stand at my stove the worries of the day simply melt away. I take in the sizzle of okra and the smell of roux toasting in my soup pot. I taste the soup and when I do the flavors of the gulf coast come flooding back.

New Orleans has a rich culinary history. If you have ever had the pleasure of visiting the Big Easy then you know just how celebrated a meal can be. This week I have been reading and eating from Julia Reed’s New Orleans Food, Fun and Field Trips for Letting the Good Times Roll. Reed is quite the story teller and her book is a feast for the eyes. It is filled with gorgeous photography, tales of parties and  introductions to the cooks and restaurateurs who make New Orleans so delicious.

The city has a a tradition of making some distinctive and amazingly flavorful soups, including my favorite seafood gumbo. So as I soon as I saw Reed’s recipe for Gumbo I knew that I had to try it. Gumbo is one of those dishes that you don’t see too often in the Midwest so this was definitely a treat. If you too want a taste of Reed’s beloved, New Orleans then try her Gumbo. It took me a little over an hour to make, but you just can’t rush flavors this good. Reed’s recipe is party sized to serve 10 to 12 so I adapted it for a smaller party of 4 to 6. I like to serve my gumbo with a side of rice and some garlic bread.

Julia Reed’s Seafood Gumbo (Serves 4 to 6)

  • 1 pound medium shrimp, deveined and peeled
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 pound okra sliced
  • 1/2 pound andouille sausage, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1/2 cup green bell pepper chopped
  • 4 green onions chopped, with tender green parts
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 3 cups seafood stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 2 teaspoons Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup whole tomatoes, roughly chopped and 1/3 cup of their juice reserved
  • 1/2 pound lump crabmeat (I made mine with just shrimp and sausage but when I can find it crab is always good)
  • 3 finely chopped green onions as garnish and topping
  • 4 to 6 cups cooked white rice

In a large skillet heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat add okra and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and sauté stirring often for about 10 minutes

Then place your okra in a bowl to add back to your gumbo later. Next sauté your andouille sausage until browned and then set it aside to add in later.

In a large stock pot heat 2 tablespoon of oil over high heat. Add flour, lower the heat to medium and stir constantly. You want your roux to cook till it turns a medium brown. Add your onion, celery and bell pepper and sauté. Continue to stir and cook until you’re vegetables soften, 4 to 5 minutes. Add in your garlic and green onions and cook an additional 3 minutes.

Next stir in your tomato paste, tomatoes and and 1/3 cup of their reserved liquid, thyme, bayleaves, pepper, Worcestershire, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Then gradually stir in your seafood stock. Add the sausage and okra. Bring to a boil over high heat and cover. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes.

Then remove and discard your bayleaves. Stir in your shrimp and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in your crab meat and simmer for 1 minute more. Remove from heat and serve in bowls over rice.

Reed notes that this recipe can be made up to two days ahead of time, but she recommends leaving out the seafood. Heat the gumbo up to a boil and then add your seafood right before you serve it, according to the last step in the recipe.

So Laissez bon temps rouler, Julia Reed’s New Orleans has been hard to put down. I have loved seeing the city with her writing as my guide. I know this book is one that  I will continue to cook from in the years to come. I am already eyeing other recipes like her scalloped “Christmas Potatoes,” Strawberry Salsa and Rum Pecan Pie. So if you are already thinking about holiday gifts then this cookbook would make a wonderful present for the entertainer or cook in your family.

When Love Writes The Story

I am sharing the story I wrote for my column with The Hinsdalean. When I showed the article to my dad his comment was “that’s it” and he is right 500 words cannot begin to tell the whole story. However, I knew that I wanted to share just a part of this love story so that I might give others on the same path hope. Adoption is a long journey, and we are forever grateful for those who helped and loved us along the way. 

 

No matter how much you prepare or plan for it, parenthood has a way of writing its own story.

Its love has a strength that is greater than I could have ever known. My own journey to become a mother looks nothing like I thought it would, but looking back I am grateful for that.

My struggle with infertility meant that having a family the way I had imagined needed to change. Determined that my diagnosis would not be the end of my dream for a family, we immediately began to think about adoption.

It was a long journey that took nearly two years, but we were overjoyed and nervous when we finally got the call that our first daughter was going to be born. We weren’t sure what to expect as we packed my husband’s Ford Explorer and we made the four-hour drive to the town were my daughter was born. We met her birthmother in the hospital waiting room. We felt small and barely equipped to handle the enormity of this gift. However, we did our best to help as she labored to bring our little girl into the world. When our daughter, Gabriella, was born the doctor handed the baby to her birthmother and then she turned to me and said “do you want to hold her?” When I picked her up and looked at her, I said “Hello sweetheart, I’m your mommy.” Then suddenly my tiny daughter opened her eyes and looked straight at me. Her birthmother turned to me and said, “I think she knows.” That wide-eyed moment brought us both peace. The room was filled with love for this little girl. Even though her birthmother handed her to me with tears in her eyes, she truly believed that placing her baby with our family would be her way of giving her daughter everything she wanted for her.

Eighteen months later, when we got the unexpected phone call about our second daughter, we were surprised to learn that she had already been born. It was amazing how swiftly our family worked to help welcome Alyssa. Although we didn’t have the opportunity to meet her birthmother, everything we learned about her showed us how much she loved our daughter.

November is national adoption month. There are many amazing families who have been touched by adoption. For our family, November is a time to reflect on the journey and give thanks for their birthmothers and everyone who helped us find and welcome our daughters. It’s also a time to recognize the gift of family. As we talk about adoption to our daughters, we remind them that family is ultimately as big as your love allows.

Our journey to parenthood may have taken a different path than expected, but I wouldn’t want to change it. Somewhere along the way we learned to trust that when the details get difficult it’s best to let love write the ending, because family is a miraculous gift no matter how it finds you.

 

The Color Dance

The magnificent color dance has begun. Everywhere you look the tree branches are billowing with brilliant leaves in yellow, orange and red. A chilly breeze whirls through the trees and suddenly their leaves take flight. They swirl and twirl through the air creating a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes.

The roads are lined with leaves from the maples, oaks, ashes and gingko trees. As I walk each colorful branch beckons me to see the wondrous beauty of fall. My daughter and I play eye spy as we search for the next spectacular tree.

The frosty air is nipping at the last of the summer flowers. You can feel the wind is changing, but before the garden slides into its snowy slumber there is one last bit of planting left to do. So, I am bundling up and getting to work this week planting my tulips. When winter comes thoughts of those cheerful green shoots and colorful blooms keeping me dreaming of spring. When it comes to Chicago winters, I found it helps to live in garden denial from time to time and daydream about tulips.

Talk about garden denial! I was in fall bliss earlier this week. The leaves were gorgeous and my summer flowers were still blooming. Until yesterday, when our first hard frost came with snow. Looks like I will be shoveling snow out of my flower beds before I can get my tulips in the ground.

This year I ordered my bulbs from a wholesaler. I have read lots of good reviews about this company, so I cannot wait to see my garden this spring. Every year I go with a slightly different mix of colors this year I went with a cheery mix of pinks, corals and purples. Planting times vary depending on what part of the country you live in. Here is a helpful map of gardening zones and planting times. If you live in the south where winter is milder then you might need to refrigerate your bulbs. Bulbs need to feel like they are living in Amsterdam or Chicago even if you are enjoying a little sun and some better winter weather. Winter may be coming soon, but spring bulbs keep the color dance going with the promise of flowers to come.

Tips for Planting Spring Tulips

  • If you haven’t planted your bulbs yet and live in the Midwest then do not delay. The first hard frost came this week. So now is the time!
  • Tulips look best when they are planted in tight clusters or groups. They are social flowers who look best when planted with lots of friends.
  • Make sure you plant your tulips to the right depth. Blubs need protection from the cold and squirrels. Here in the North I plant my bulbs to the deeper side of the recommended depth range.
  • Consider planting a blend or mix of tulips bulbs that includes early, mid-season and/or late tulips to extend the blooms and color in your yard this spring.
  • Chicago winters are generally too cold for bulbs to survive when planted in outdoor flower pots. So, think about burying a plastic pot or two or planting extra bulbs in the ground. You can easily transfer them to pots or containers this spring.

Holiday House

My first magazine column, called Holiday House, appeared in Life in the Woodlands last week since it’s a small magazine with a limited distribution I thought I would share it here:

Maybe it’s because my mother is the queen of Christmas or because I love gardening and watching the seasons change or because I tend to be an optimist who is always looking for something to celebrate, but no matter the reason for as long as I can remember I have always loved the holidays. Family coming together, sparkling lights, and the smell of something baking in the kitchen, those are the moments I love. My young daughters will tell you that I am always decorating our home from one holiday to the another. At five and six they love to help and always want to know what we are celebrating next.

Sometimes we all need to take a break from the busy day to day to embrace the fun of the season and spend a little time with family and friends. My column The Holiday House will feature some of my seasonal favorites from the garden to the table. Ideas and recipes to share with the ones you love.

Each year October has me thinking of childhood memories of Halloween, from pumpkin patches to costumes and trick or treating with my sister and brother. In our house it also has us thinking about chocolate. These mini chocolate cakes are fun to make and decorate. The chocolate ganache is easier to decorate with than regular frosting and if you are pressed for time you could even use a small plastic spider ring. So have some Halloween baking fun, because the only thing frightening about these little cakes is how fast they will disappear.

Halloween Chocolatines

Makes one 9 x 13 inch sheet cake which when cut makes 6 individual chocolatines

  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

Chocolate Ganache 

  • 5 oz semi sweet chocolate chopped into small pieces
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/3 cup of heavy cream

Spider Web and Fondant Spiders

  • 2 oz white chocolate
  • 1 small container of black fondant
  • Dragees or sprinkles for decorating your spider
  • 1 plastic pastry bag
  • Toothpicks

Preheat to oven to 350 degrees. Prepare your cake pan by lining it in parchment paper and greasing and flouring the sides or spraying them with Baker’s Joy.

Then in a heavy saucepan combine the butter, water and canola oil and set over medium heat until the butter is just melted. Meanwhile in a large bowl of your mixer add together the sugar, cocoa and flour. Then pour the butter mixture into the sugar and flour mixture and beat until smooth. Mix in the eggs one at a time then mix in the buttermilk. Next add the baking soda, salt and vanilla all at once and mix one final time. Pour your cake batter into your prepared pan and bake for approximately 30 to 35 minutes.

Once your cake has cooled remove it from the pan and then place your sheet cake on a flat smooth surface. I cut my individual cakes by using a wide mouthed glass. My glass had a three and a quarter inch diameter, but you could use a jar, glass or cookie cutter of a roughly similar size. I found it helped to lightly spray the inside of the glass and edges with butter flavored cooking spray.

Next in a small sauce pan over medium low heat your chopped semi-sweet chocolate and your butter. Cutting the chocolate into smaller chunks helps it melt evenly. Meanwhile heat your cream in the microwave until it is warm, about 40 seconds. Then keep an eye on your chocolate. Give it an occasional stir as it melts and as soon as it does pull your pan off of the heat and slowly pour in your warm cream while stirring your chocolate mixture. You want to stir until the chocolate and cream come together and you get a glossy looking mixture.

Then while the ganache is still warm spoon a small amount on each cake and spread it evenly using a separated spatula or a butter knife.

Then while your chocolate ganache is still warm heat 2oz of white chocolate in a microwavable bowl. I heated mine for 30 seconds and then stirred it and then heated it for another 20 seconds. You want the chocolate to melt but you want to make sure it does not burn. Then take a plastic pastry bag (they are easy to find at any craft store) and fill it with the melted white chocolate.

Then cut a small hole at the very tip of your bag and then you are ready to pipe your spider webs. To make your web pipe a white chocolate spiral on each cake. Then while it is still warm take a tooth pick and lightly drag it from the center out to form a web.

To make the spiders roll six little balls of black fondant. Then roll out some long thin snake like pieces. To make your spider legs cut four even pieces of your rolled snakes using scissors or a knife. Then make a bow tie like middle by pinching your legs together so you had eight legs with four on each side. Then put the little balls on top on each set of spider legs. I used some colored sprinkles to make stripes on our spiders and I used some white dragees to make eyes. Your chocolate cakes will do best when kept in the fridge. So share something delicious with your family and friends.

 

The Spellbinding Homes of Harold Zook

Ever seen a spiderweb sparkling in the sun and wondered how all those little details were created? I prefer to keep my distance when it comes spiders, but I do marvel at their designs. I had never seen a spider web and thought of home design until I saw the work of Midwest architect, Harold Zook.

Although not as widely known as Frank Lloyd Wright, Harold Zook was a notable and celebrated architect from the 1920s to the late 1940s. His artistic and distinctive homes are so beloved that nearly a century people are still talking about them. Zook built homes in the western towns that surround Chicago including: Hinsdale, Western Springs, Riverside, Downers Grove, Glen Ellyn, Homewood, Warrenville, Palos, St. Charles and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

This is the garage and an additional living/studio space belong to the home featured above. These were recent additions, but the architectural design beautifully matches Zook’s original home. I noticed that this home was recently photographed so hopefully we will see more of the interior renovation when it is published.

The craftsmanship and artistic details make his home designs truly one of a kind. Although known for his Cotswold styled cottages, Zook also built many Tudor and Georgian inspired homes as well. Zook was deeply influenced by nature. His homes feature exposed wooden beams and living rooms with cathedral like ceilings that let the natural light fill the room. He also found ways to add in distinctive floral and animal details to shutters, windows and iron work.

This is Harold Zook’s Office. When it was relocated they had to remove some of the original windows on the house and temporarily replace them with painter shutters which you can see in the distance. Hopefully with time they will be able to more fully restore it. Notice the undulating cedar shingle roof line. It was designed by Zook to mimic the look of a thatched roof. These roofs are one of the special trademarks of many of Zook’s Cotswold styled homes.

However, his signature mark became adding a spider web detail in each home he designed. Sometimes he added it to a stain glass window other times it was featured in stonework above a fireplace or in a patio.

Here is close up of another signature Zook detail. This spider stained glass window is a special feature of the home he designed for Legge family. If you look closely a little spider has built it’s own web in the corner.

In the 1980s, Zook’s nephew, Coder Taylor, who worked with his uncle was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune. He remembered how his uncle loved spider webs. Zook believed that spiders were nature’s best builders. As his assistant Taylor remembers how Zook was fascinated with their structure. Taylor remarked that he drew so many spider webs while working with Zook that he thought he was a “baby spider.”

This Tudor inspired Zook home is filled with interesting woodwork and carved flower boxes. This home was recently restored and remodeled.

Zook’s personal home and his office have now been moved and preserved at Katherine Legge Park in Hinsdale, Illinois. They have been placed near another residence he designed for the Legge family in 1927 that is now used for special events. The local historical society hopes to be able to restore more of his home and office in the future.

Zook’s homes continue to live on and influence the architectural feel of Hinsdale and the western suburbs of Chicago. A recent renovation of one of his homes was feature in Luxe Magazine. His homes are all private residences so it’s special to see photographs of the interiors of this home.

This is one of the window boxes of this home all dressed up and planted for fall.

Zook’s homes have a magical quality to them. They feel like storybook cottages come to life. Zook was as much an artist as he was an architect thus it’s wonderful to see people treasure his work.

Even the garage is thoughtfully designed as if it was it’s own little cottage.

I love seeing Zook’s homes set against the fall leaves and decorated for the season. So, I hope you enjoyed seeing some of the spellbinding work of Harold Zook. Like the spider’s webs he studied his homes are uniquely beautiful, each spins their own fantastic tale in every detail he imagined.

There Is No Taste Like Home: King Ranch Chicken

My first newspaper column ran last week, which was exciting to see. My  assignment was to introduce myself to my local readers, so I decided to do it through food. Because food has a language of its own and it is one of my favorite ways to get to know a place. You can read my column here, but this week I thought I would share my recipe for King Ranch Chicken. If you are not familiar with this casserole then think of it as a Texas styled lasagna. So, if you have ever been homesick for a taste of Texas or just want to try a signature dish from the Lone Star State then you are in for a treat. This recipe is one of my all time favorites.

King Ranch Chicken -Serves 8 to 10 people

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3 cups chicken broth, warmed
  • 1/2 cup cream, warmed
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 3 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 1 (10 oz) can Rotel tomatoes, drained
  • 4 cups shredded rotisserie chicken or roast your own
  • 18 corn tortillas or if you are not a fan of the traditional corn you can substitute flour
  • 5 cups of a blend of shredded cheddar a Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1 cup sour cream for garnishing
  • Avocado Pico de Gallo (see recipe below)

In a large skillet or dutch oven melt your butter over medium heat. Sauté your onion and bell pepper until they are tender about 6 minutes. Then add in your garlic and cook it for an additional minute.

Next sprinkle in your flour and stir it into your onion mixture until it is no longer white. Then slowly add in your warm chicken stock about 1/2 cup at a time until it is all added. Then add your cream. Adding warm stock and cream is the key to having a creamy chicken base.

Then add in your seasonings including your salt, chili powder and coriander. Finally stir in your Rotel tomatoes. (If you like things on the less spicy side they make a mild version of Rotel that has fewer chilis.)

Now that your sauce is finished you are now ready to start assembling your casserole. Spray a 9×13 inch dish with cooking spray and then speed a very thin layer of sauce on the bottom. Next add a layer of your torn tortillas to cover the entire bottom of your pan. Layer on half of your chicken and 1 1/2 of your shredded cheese then cover that with a thin layer of sauce.

Continue with a second layer of chicken, tortillas, cheese and sauce.

Finally make a third and final layer of tortillas and cover that with the remaining sauce and sprinkle the top with the remaining 2 cups of cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until the top is gold and bubbly. You can also make this ahead of time, but it you are baking it straight from the fridge you may want to adjust your cooking time.

I like to garnish mine with a dollop of sour cream and a little avocado pico de gallo

Avocado Pico de Gallo (I sometimes double this pico de gallo if I am making this dish for a crowd)

  • 1 avocado chopped into bite sized pieces
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 2 green onion tops (just the green part) sliced thinly on the diagonal
  • 3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
  • 1 TBSP lime juice
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder

Mix your ingredients in a medium sized bowl and add a  spoonful or two on top of your casserole.

Texas Monthly Magazine said it best, if Texas “were to declare a state casserole then it would have to be King Ranch.” The spicy Tex-Mex flavors of this dish are what makes it so memorably delish. There are versions of this recipe with cream of mushroom soup, but this from scratch version is much better. There is just no comparison when it comes to taste. The other thing I love about this dish is how easy it is to make ahead of time and if you have leftovers it freezes well too. I hope my King Ranch Chicken aka “Texas Lasagna” brings your taste buds as much joy as it does mine.

Autumn Gardens

Fall Porch Planters

Autumn is here and the morning air is now cool and crisp. The gardeners are now out planting borders of cabbages, kales, mums and pansies. As I walk, I love to linger and take in the beauty of fall’s regal colors. The deep reds, purples and oranges paint fall gardens in such a gorgeous palette. This English styled cottage had a lovely front garden. Green boxwood topiaries line the flower beds and the planters were overflowing with kale, cabbages and pansies.

This planter was particularly pretty. I love the height and color they added by using the dried branches and berries.

It feels a bit like a story book cottage with its ivy-covered doorway and the lantern lights and wooden door.

I loved this set of stunning purple planters that brighten this front porch. Purple fountain grass is one of my favorites for creating height and adding texture to any planter or flower bed. The fountain grass is circled with New Guinea impatiens, which I have found to be more hardy in the fall than traditional impatiens.

A front walkway filled with vibrant colors and blooms. The purple cabbage and mums make a spectacular statement.

Mixing in planters, flower boxes and  pumpkins make for a pretty fall statment.

Just a touch of fall with this planter. I love how these mums and fountain grass brighten the doorway.

This cheerful apple green door is decked out for fall with flowerbeds filled with deep red mums and purple cabbages.

Even if a vibrant apple green door isn’t the right look for your home you can still add some light green touches to your garden with lettuces that create lovely contrast against fall friendly purple and white violas.

So if the fall weather has you out gardening or thinking about planting a fall pot or two, then take a little inspiration from some of these picturesque gardens. Just a few flowers can brighten your home and welcome the season.