For Hanukkah, get Gail Simmons’ recipe for latke reubens with apple slaw

Hanukkah starts this week, so it’s time to break out the potato shredder.

These latke reubens are a dish from Gail Simmons’ new cookbook, “Bringing it Home.” Contributed by Johnny Miller

Gail Simmons, who was at the Texas Book Festival last month for her new book “Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating” (Grand Central Life & Style, $30), uses a food processor to make short work of what can be an arduous task, but the most important step is the one that follows: straining and squeezing the water out of the shredded potatoes. The latkes won’t stay together if you don’t.

RELATED: Get wax off the menorah before Hanukkah

8 days of sweet: We love doughnuts for Hanukkah

Kids curious about Hanukkah? Read my guide

Latke Reubens

In Simmons’ new book, the “Top Chef” judge shares this recipe for latke reubens. Combining two Jewish staples is an apple slaw that goes on top of the pastrami. It’s tossed in an apple cider vinaigrette, a tangy complement to the old school Russian dressing that she seasons with hot sauce and horseradish.

For the slaw:
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons light or dark brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 cups shredded green cabbage (about a quarter of a small head)
1 Granny Smith apple, cut into matchsticks
3/4 cup thinly sliced red onion (about half small onion)
2 celery ribs, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
For the Russian dressing:
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon prepared white horseradish
1 teaspoon hot sauce
For the latkes:
3 1/2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and quartered lengthwise
1 large yellow onion, peeled and cut into 8 wedges
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
Kosher salt
Canola oil, for frying
1/2 pound thinly sliced pastrami, slices cut in half crosswise
Chopped fresh dill

For the slaw: In a large bowl, stir together the vinegar, mustard, sugar, salt and a generous pinch of pepper. Slowly whisk in the oil until well combined.

Add the cabbage, apple, onion, celery, and dill to the dressing; toss thoroughly to combine. Adjust the seasoning to taste. Let the slaw stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.

For the dressing: In a medium bowl, stir together all of the ingredients. Adjust the hot sauce to taste. The dressing can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

For the latkes: Set a large strainer over a bowl. In a food processor fitted with the shredding disk, shred the potatoes and onion in batches. Add each batch to the strainer and let stand for 5 minutes, then squeeze dry. Pour off the liquid and rinse the bowl, then add the shredded potato mixture. Stir in the flour, eggs, dill, baking powder and 1 ½ teaspoons salt. Scrape the mixture back into the strainer and set it over the bowl again; let stand for another 5 minutes.

In a large skillet, heat ¼ inch of canola oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in batches, spoon a scant ¼ cup of the potato mixture into the hot oil for each latke, pressing slightly to flatten. Fry over moderate heat, turning once, until the latkes are golden and crisp on both sides, about 7 minutes. Drain the latkes on a paper towel–lined baking sheet. Season well with salt.

To assemble: Spread about 1 teaspoon of the dressing on each latke. Top with a folded slice of pastrami and a heaping tablespoon of the slaw. Garnish with dill and serve. Makes 3 dozen.

— From “Bringing It Home: Favorite Recipes from a Life of Adventurous Eating” by Gail Simmons (Grand Central Life & Style, $30)


Here’s a wacky weekend project for you: Velveeta fudge

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I’d heard about marshmallow fudge, a common shortcut to make the beloved holiday treat, but I was having a hard time wrapping my head around Velveeta fudge.

Some cooks use marshmallows or other shortcuts to more easily get the signature texture of fudge. But one ingredient you may not have thought to try is Velveeta. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

A brick of processed cheese, mixed with powdered sugar and melted butter — this was not a recipe I’d heard of growing up in my neck of the Ozarks. But others with Midwestern roots in the newsroom chimed in that they’d had this back home.

Fudge is an American confection that dates back to the 1880s, when a grocery store in Baltimore sold “fudged” caramel for 40 cents a pound. Traditionally, you make it by cooking butter and granulated sugar to a soft-ball stage, about 236 degrees. This method requires being exact with the time, temperature and stirring (or not stirring) and can be difficult to master, especially if you only make it once a year.

So it’s no surprise that Americans, with their quest for efficiency and love of grocery store shortcuts, turned to the supermarket aisles for help with this staple of the holiday cookie tin.

Some quick fudge recipes use sweetened condensed milk and chocolate chips or marshmallows and evaporated milk to obtain that signature texture, but Velveeta fudge recipes rely entirely on a combination of melted cheese and butter mixed with powdered sugar and cocoa. Most Velveeta fudge recipes also call for a little vanilla or nuts, while others suggest dried cherries or even chili powder.

How did Velveeta end up in a dessert? Velveeta was first introduced in 1917 as a new kind of cheese made from scraps of real cheese. By the 1920s, Kraft had purchased the brand and started its still-ongoing marketing campaign to encourage customers to buy it.

When it debuted 100 years ago, Velveeta introduced a texture into American kitchens that was at that time much harder to obtain. Marshmallows and gelatin have had a similar effect on our collective recipe canon. With these new products, home cooks (and the marketers targeting them) could let their creativity go wild. From the 1940s through the 1960s, this gave us savory Jell-O salads, marshmallow-topped casseroles and, yes, Velveeta fudge.

In the past 10 years or so, Paula Deen repopularized the “chocolate cheese fudge” made with the product that is more often used in queso, mac and cheese and enchiladas. A few years later, the South Carolina chef Sean Brock included his family’s version in his book “Heritage.”

I went as basic as possible for my first attempt at making Velveeta fudge, using only vanilla and not including any nuts. The fudge mixture came together quickly. After I melted the butter and Velveeta on the stove, stirring often over low heat, I poured over a mixture of powdered sugar and cocoa.

Using a spatula, I folded the fudge over and over again, pressing the dry mixture into the warm liquid until the two were thoroughly combined. The fudge spread easily into a 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole dish, and within a few hours, it was solid enough to slice into pieces.

The processed cheese is melted with butter and then mixed with powdered sugar and cocoa. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

The texture of the fudge was smooth, almost puttylike, and there was a creaminess that traditional fudge usually lacks. The biggest tell that something was different, however, was the faint smell of queso and underlying savory taste.

It’s unlikely someone would guess they’re eating cheese, but there are enough differences that friends and family are bound to ask what your secret ingredient is.

With or without the cheese, a fudge recipe with melted chocolate is always going to yield a richer product than one that relies on powdered sugar and cocoa. But this was still a nice treat.

Velveeta Fudge

In my family, fudge is a holiday dessert. And it may come as a shock to some, but the key ingredient in this fudge is Velveeta cheese. The ultra-creamy nature of the processed whey melts more evenly than traditional cheese. Everyone knows I am dedicated to heirloom ingredients; now I suppose you can add Velveeta to the list.

— Sean Brock

Charleston chef Sean Brock grew up eating Velveeta fudge. He included a recipe for it in his 2014 book, “Heritage.” Contributed by Peter Frank Edwards

1/2 pound Velveeta cheese, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
1/2 pound unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices
2 pounds powdered sugar
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup chopped black walnuts (or other nut, optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan lightly with nonstick baking spray.

If you have a double boiler, melt the Velveeta and butter in the top of a double boiler over low heat. The water in the lower boiler should never be hotter than a simmer. Stir the Velveeta and butter together with a silicone spatula until melted and combined, scraping down the sides as necessary, about 8 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and set aside. You can do this in a microwave or in a saucepan over medium-low heat, but stir often to combine thoroughly.

Put the powdered sugar and cocoa in a large bowl and whisk together, making sure that no lumps remain. Add the nuts and stir to combine.

Add the sugar mixture to the warm cheese mixture, then add the vanilla and stir until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is smooth. Pour the fudge into the prepared pan. Tap the pan on the counter to remove any air bubbles and smooth the top with a small offset spatula. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours; wait until the fudge is cold before covering it, so that moisture won’t form on the top. Cut the fudge into 1-inch squares. Serve at room temperature.

Tightly covered, the fudge will keep for up to 1 week in the refrigerator. Tightly wrapped, it can be frozen for up to 3 months. Thaw it in the refrigerator and bring to room temperature

— Adapted from “Heritage” by Sean Brock (Artisan Books, $40)

Making New Year’s plans? Time to enter the black-eyed pea cook-off in Hye

We haven’t yet had any Christmas ham or Hanukkah latkes, but it’s time to start thinking about New Year’s plans.

William Chris Vineyard in Hye is hosting a Black-Eyed Pea Party and Cook-off on New Year’s Day. The deadline to enter the cooking contest is Dec. 26. Contributed by Miguel Lecuona

MORE: Browse New Year’s events in our holiday calendar

If you’re a black-eyed pea fan, you need to know about William Chris Vineyards’ annual black-eyed pea cook-off on New Year’s Day. This event in Hye brings together people who love to cook black-eyed peas and people who love to eat them to help bring good luck into the new year. Tickets cost $25 and include samples of the entries and a New Year’s toast.

For those of you who want to enter your best Hoppin’ John, you can enter the cook-off for $50. The winner gets $500 and a case of wine, which would not be a bad way to start the year.

RELATED: Going meatless next year? Here’s a vegetarian Hoppin’ John salad

Tickets, more details about the event and how to enter the cook-off are available here.

The party starts at 1 p.m. at the vineyard and will feature live music from Trace of Gold, with wine available for purchase and plenty of black-eyed peas. The deadline to enter the cook-off is Dec. 26.

Scenes from last year’s black-eyed pea event at William Chris Vineyard. Contributed by Miguel Lecuona

An über sweet story behind an old cookie called pfeffernüsse

I’d never heard of pfeffernüsse until 2012, when a reader named Sally Jo Hahn emailed me to try to find a recipe for her dad.

He was about to turn 92, and he absolutely loved these spiced “peppernut” cookies from his childhood. Hahn had some questions. I tried to find some answers and ended up having a memorable afternoon baking cookies with her. This story had fallen off the internet, so I’m republishing it today, on National Cookie Day appropriately.

RELATED: Our five favorite cookie recipes on National Cookie Day

Sally Jo Hahn lost her grandmother’s recipe for pfeffernusse, a traditional cookie made in countries throughout Europe during the holidays. With the help of dozens of recipes that readers sent in, she found one that was similar to her Oma’s, which we made together in her South Austin home. Many of the recipes called for eggs, but her grandmother’s used potash and ammonium carbonate, which she found online. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Dec. 12, 2012.

Sally Jo Hahn just wanted to give her dad a taste of one of his favorite cookies for his 92nd birthday this month.

The South Austinite emailed me in October to ask whether I knew where to find any old-fashioned pfeffernüsse recipes like her grandmother’s, which contained potash (potassium carbonate) and ammonium carbonate, ingredients used in the 19th century to add leavening and a crispness to the small, round cookies.

When her grandmother, Marie Rahn, and mother, Anneliese Hahn, died a year apart about a decade ago, the recipe got lost in the shuffle of their possessions.

These heavily spiced pfeffernüsse cookies aren’t found on my tables today, but they are fondly remembered by many who were born in post-war America. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

The cookies Hahn remembered were heavily spiced with cinnamon, cloves, anise, cardamom and nutmeg, and because they were hard as nails, they shipped well and stayed good for months.

We published her request and were inundated with recipes. More than 30 of you sent in your own family recipes and stories about these German cookies, which are also popular in a number of northern European countries.

I forwarded all the notes, including the handwritten ones, to Hahn, and last week, I helped her make a batch.

While we were rolling out the long ropes of sticky, dense dough, I found out that there was much more to her family’s love of pfeffernüsse than its signature spice.

Here’s how Hahn tells it: Her grandparents and mother emigrated to Michigan from what was then East Prussia after World War I ended. In 1944, her mother married Jerry Hahn, a soldier who was also from Detroit.

All in all, Hahn was deployed for two and a half years during World War II, including fighting under George S. Patton in the Battle of the Bulge, and during his time in Europe, his mother-in-law would send tins of pfeffernüsse in his care packages.

The irony is not lost on Sally Jo Hahn that her German grandmother sent German cookies to her father, who was fighting the Nazis not all that far from the part of Europe where her grandparents had left less than 20 years before.

Hahn’s grandmother used to send pfeffernüsse cookies to her dad when he was in Europe during World War II. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

The history of this particular recipe, of course, led to entirely different stories, a heartbreaking one of relatives, including young children, crossing heavily guarded borders in the middle of the night, and another of her dad staying up late to transmit Morse code with the help of coffee so thick that a spoon could stand up on its own in the middle of the cup.

For Jerry Hahn, slowly chewing on those rich, flavorful cookies from home made the nights pass a little quicker.

It’s no wonder Sally Jo Hahn was on the hunt for the recipe.

Unlike the photo we ran with the column, most of the recipes, including the one Hahn was after, did not call for powdered sugar. “My grandma grew up in East Prussia. They didn’t have powdered sugar, ” she said. “These were peasant cookies.”

They also didn’t have electric mixers or ovens that kept a steady temperature. To find the potassium and ammonium carbonate that were readily available to her grandmother, Hahn had to go online, where she discovered‘s extensive inventory. (The website also has a large retail store in Colleyville, which opened about three years ago.)

Though the German name translates to “peppernuts” in English, not all pfeffernüsse contain black pepper or nuts, though some of the recipes that readers sent in certainly did.

Maren Larsen Palmer’s recipe, which originated with her Danish grandmother, calls only for ground cloves, and a number of recipes relied on anise extract or oil to give the cookies that characteristic bite.

Jennifer Michie’s family favorite, from a church cookbook from a Lutheran church in North Dakota, calls for a cup of coffee thrown in the mix.

Many of you sent in recipes that have been in your families for generations. Helen Kott’s family, including her Aunt Dora, have likely been making pfeffernüsse in and around Fredericksburg since they moved there in the mid-1850s, and Martha Rinn’s recipe, which calls for eggs and no molasses or syrup, has been in her family at least 100 years.

(Ottilie Cleesen’s and Marie Offerman’s daughters were kind enough to email their mothers’ recipes in for them.)

One reader from Manchaca who wished to remain anonymous summed it up best: Though it is impossible to replicate a memory, especially one created by an “Oma, ” the search itself is a gift.


This recipe is a combination of several, including one from Sally Jo Hahn’s cousin Jutta Rahn and another from Buzz Moran’s grandmother Annie. It’s as close as Hahn has gotten so far to what her Oma once made.

1 cup Karo syrup (light or dark) or honey
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. ground cardamom
2 tsp. ground nutmeg
Pinch ground star anise
4 cups flour
1 ½ tsp. potassium carbonate (pottasche)
Pinch ammonium carbonate (hirschhornsalz)

In a small saucepan, mix together the Karo syrup or honey, sugar and butter and bring to a boil. Let the caramel-like mixture cool. While that is cooling, whisk together the spices and flour in a large bowl. Reserve.

In a small bowl, heat 2 tbsp. water until warm but not hot. Dissolve the potassium carbonate and ammonium carbonate in the water and then add all to the cooled syrup/butter mixture.

Slowly add the syrup mixture to the flour mixture in small batches, incorporating the ingredients with a wooden spoon as you go so that the syrup doesn’t end up in a blob in the bottom of the bowl.

Once the dough is starting to come together, you can use a stand-up mixer with a dough hook attachment to help bring it together, or you can continue to use a spoon and your hands.

When the dough can be pressed together into a ball, refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

After the dough has cooled, place a chunk of the dough on a floured surface and roll into a long rope about as thick as your thumb.

Place on a baking sheet and continue making ropes with the dough. Cover with a towel or plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove ropes from fridge and cut into ½-inch pieces. Place pieces with a little space between them on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 8 to 9 minutes, or until slightly puffed up and only slightly browned. Cool on a cookie rack.

(You can toss them in powdered sugar when they are still warm, but this isn’t the Hahn family way.)

When completely cool, store in a sealed tin or glass jar. The cookies will continue to harden as they cool, but dipping them in coffee or milk will soften them.

— Recipe from Jutta Rahn, Ontario, Canada


Janice Friesen’s Oma’s recipe, which she says she makes in large batches to give cookies away to neighbors, family and friends this time of year, calls for shortening, baking powder and an egg, a totally different set of leavening agents, but one that makes for a similar, if less tooth-cracking cookie.

2 cups sugar
1 cup shortening
1 cup dark Karo syrup
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cardamom
1 tsp. ground star anise
5 cups flour, plus more for dusting

In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and shortening with an electric mixer. In a small bowl, combine egg and Karo syrup, and in another large bowl, whisk together the salt, baking powder, spices and flour. Mix the wet ingredients together and then slowly add the flour.

On a floured surface, roll the dough into long ropes and then chill for at least an hour.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Remove dough ropes from fridge and cut into ½-inch pieces. Place pieces on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes and let cool. Store in an airtight container.

— Recipe by Ann Friesen


Our five favorite cookie recipes to celebrate National Cookie Day

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National Cookie Day is here!

Every day of December should be National Cookie Day, if you ask me. Snickerdoodles, thumbprint cookies, kitchen sink cookies, sugar cookies, oatmeal raisin cookie, salted chocolate chunk cookies, gingersnaps and gingerdoodles.

My sister makes what I call the world’s best chocolate chip cookies? Don’t believe me? Make them for yourself this rainy weekend and tell me if you have a better recipe. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

RELATED: Royal icing tips to make those Christmas cookies extra special

No Christmas cookie ice cream for you, Blue Bell fans

Anna Núñez made these white chocolate cranberry cookies for our holiday cookie contest in 2016. Mark Matson for American-Statesman

I mean, seriously, there are so many cookies to choose from, you could bake a different cookie every day of the year and still have more to bake. (Ask Austinite Anna Ginsberg. The winner of the 2006 Pillsbury Bake-Off wrote a book called “The Daily Cookie” a few years ago.)

To celebrate this beloved dessert, here are five of my favorite cookie recipes we’ve published:

Arleen Action won our Holiday Cookie Contest with these iced lemon cookies that are topped with crushed pistachios. Mark Matson / For the American-Statesman

Iced Lemon Cookies: These pistachi-topped tangy treats from reader Arleen Action won our cookie contest last year.

Chocolate Chip Skillet Cookie: We all love a big cookie, so why not bake one as big as a skillet?

Anna’s White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies: I usually hate white chocolate, but cranberries turn that yuck into a serious yum, especially in this cookie.

Chelsea’s World’s Best Chocolate Chip Cookies: My sister isn’t the only person who claims to make the world’s best chocolate chip cookies, but hers are way better than mine.

Triple Chocolate Cookies: Can’t get enough chocolate in a chocolate chip cookie? Try this triple chocolate cookie.



Williams Sonoma catalog now selling this Austin treat

Remember when cake balls were the dessert du jour?

Austin Cake Ball has been featured in the Neiman Marcus catalog for three years, and this year, Williams Sonoma picked them up, too. Contributed by Austin Cake Ball

The super sweet treat were called “the new cupcakes,” and a handful of years later, Americans are still eating them up.

One of the best known cake ball companies in Texas is Austin Cake Ball, located at 5310 Burnet Road, and for the past three years, they’ve sold their holiday cake balls in the famed Neiman Marcus catalog.

RELATED: Holiday gift guide: 10 things for the food lover in your life

Deck the Balls: Sweeten the holiday with chocolate-coated dessert balls

But this year, Neiman Marcus has competition. Williams Sonoma is now selling a slightly different mix of themed cake balls: wintry snowman, Christmas cake and Hanukkah cake balls.

The Austin Cake Ball treats sold through Williams Sonoma are more expensive than through Austin Cake Ball’s own website, but it introduces the company to new customers.

Austin Cake Ball owner Ben May says that even though his company sells the same cake balls online for less than the cost of the ones in the upscale catalogs, they’ve sold out of the Neiman Marcus cake balls before Christmas every year, despite making more product.

On the last day to eat Thanksgiving leftovers, make knock-off Hot Pockets

Today is the last day you should be eating Thanksgiving leftovers.

I made these Hot Pocket-inspired empanadas with leftover Thanksgiving dishes and puff pastry. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

The USDA says that Sunday should be the last day to eat turkey that was cooked on Thursday. I’m on the generous side when it comes to leftover food, so I’d say today — tomorrow max, people — should be the last day you’re eating all those delicious casseroles, side dishes and meats from last week.

RELATED: The secrets to really good post-Thanksgiving turkey gumbo

For dinner last night, I used puff pastry to make Thanksgiving Hot Pockets. The puff pastry doesn’t taste identical to the breading in the Hot Pockets of your youth, but it was good enough for at least one of my kids. (The other one didn’t like the cheesy broccoli inside. Tough crowd!)

A couple of tricks to keep in mind if you want to make these:

  1. Use frozen pie dough or puff pastry if you don’t want to make your own pastry dough.
  2. Chop up your leftovers into small pieces, and try to keep them separated.
  3. Use a 5-inch diameter circle to cut out the dough.
  4. Use a teaspoon to spoon a very small amount of each of the leftovers you’d like to use. I was using stuffing, mashed potatoes, cheesy broccoli and ham, so each pastry only had a little of each in it.
  5. Crimp the edges tightly, coat with an egg wash or melted butter and bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes.



Making turkey soup this weekend? Here’s our family’s favorite homemade noodle recipe

I can think of few comfort foods I love more than my family’s chicken and noodles.

Homemade noodles can become the star of any soup, but they particularly shine with leftover turkey and homemade stock. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

My mom learned how to make handmade noodles from one of my dad’s co-workers in the 1990s, and the recipe instantly became a family classic.

It’s a quick dough made with eggs, oil, flour, salt and baking powder, and a pizza cutter makes quick work of cutting the noodles once the dough is rolled out. Drop the noodles in the boiling liquid, cover and cook for 15 minutes if the noodles are really thin or as long as 30 if they are thick.

Hand-cut noodles might seem harder to make than they actually are. A pizza cutter helps you cut the dough evenly and quickly. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

This is the perfect noodle for a post-Thanksgiving pot of turkey soup, so make sure you’ve saved those turkey carcasses.

As I learned from Maggie Perkins recently, roasting the turkey bones before making the stock really does make all the different in the flavor. For the first time in the history of my homemade broth-making, I didn’t have to add any salt (or additional bouillon) to the liquid, in part because the turkeys had been brined.

RELATED: The secrets to really good post-Thanksgiving turkey gumbo

Handmade Noodles

2 eggs, whisked
2 tablespoons oil
6 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour

In a measuring cup, mix together the eggs, oil and water. In a medium bowl, mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and make a stiff dough. On a floured surface, roll out the dough into a thin rectangle. Use a pizza cutter to cut into thin strips. Place into boiling broth or soup, cover with a lid and simmer for 20 minutes or until the noodles are cooked. Serves 6 to 8.

— Addie Broyles

In a hurry this week? Here’s a pumpkin-spiced French toast to slow you down

The biggest food week of the year is here, but you might already be feeling overwhelmed.

Cooking breakfast for guests who are staying in your house can be a tricky affair. When you’re busy trying to make sure their stay is enjoyable, deciding which meals to make can be one of the more challenging pieces of the puzzle.

This pumpkin challah french toast bake would make a great Thanksgiving or Black Friday breakfast. Contributed by Andrew Purcell

This week would be a good time to pull out those egg casseroles you might make at Easter or Christmas. But if you’re looking for a sweet dish to serve a small group at breakfast, check out this French toast bake from “Adventures in Slow Cooking: 120 Slow-Cooker Recipes for People Who Love Food” by Sarah DiGregorio (William Morrow Cookbooks, $24.99).

RELATED: Tired of pumpkin pie? This pumpkin pie cake might become your new favorite

She uses challah, but you could use any kind of bread. I wouldn’t skip the pumpkin, though, because it adds moisture to what is essentially a bread pudding. Many slow cookers heat a little unevenly, so DiGregorio explains how to avoid accidentally burning one side of the dish by adding a foil collar around the base of the insert.

Pumpkin Challah French Toast Bake

This is basically a pumpkin pie breakfast bread pudding. It will not look pretty coming out of the slow cooker — don’t worry, a dusting of powdered sugar and a sprinkling of pecans do wonders.

— Sarah DiGregorio

1 challah loaf (10 to 12 ounces), cut into 1- to 2-inch chunks (about 9 cups)
6 large eggs
1 (15-ounce) can pure pumpkin puree
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 cup half-and-half
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon finely grated nutmeg
Kosher salt
Powdered sugar, for topping
1 cup pecans, toasted and chopped, for topping
Pure maple syrup, for serving

If the bread is not already stale, heat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the bread pieces on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until they are very dry and crisp, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker: Fold a large piece of foil into a 3-inch-by-12-inch strip and press it against the side of the insert that runs the hottest, using the foil like a collar or a shield. The hot spot is probably the wall of the insert farthest from the control panel. This will keep that side of the French toast from scorching or cooking too quickly. If your slow cooker runs very hot and tends to overbrown on all sides, line the other side with a foil collar as well.

Then line the entire insert with a piece of parchment, making sure the parchment comes up at least 2 inches on all sides. This is to prevent sticking and also to make it easier to reach in and remove the French toast. (You’re using 1 piece of parchment so that the egg mixture doesn’t run between 2 layers of parchment when you pour it in.)

Whisk together the eggs, pumpkin, granulated sugar, half-and-half, vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Put the bread into the prepared cooker. Pour the egg mixture all over the bread, keeping all the liquid contained in the parchment liner and making sure all the bread gets moistened, pressing the bread down into the liquid if necessary. Cover and cook until the custard is just set: on high for 2 hours 30 minutes, on low for 4 hours, or on high for 1 hour 30 minutes followed by warm for 7 hours. Serves 6 to 8.

— From “Adventures in Slow Cooking: 120 Slow-Cooker Recipes for People Who Love Food” by Sarah DiGregorio (William Morrow Cookbooks, $24.99)

Your yearly reminder to start thawing that Thanksgiving turkey soon

Roasting (or frying!) a turkey on Thanksgiving isn’t nearly as hard as people make it out to be, but one thing that often trips people up is thawing the bird.

Frozen turkeys can take longer than you think to thaw. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Turkeys weigh upwards of 10 pounds. They are almost always sold frozen solid and thawed slowly over 2-4 days in a refrigerator. You can also thaw a turkey using the cold water method in the sink, but that requires far too much hands-on work and wasted water for this cook.

If you plan to brine your turkey, you’ll want to factor in an extra day so that the turkey can sit in the salt water overnight or at least 4 hours before you roast it. You don’t want the turkey in the brine for more than 12 hours, so plan accordingly.

What’s the lesson here? No matter how you’re going to do it, you should start thinking now about how you’re going to thaw the turkey now. If you’re using a fridge, you should put the turkey in there this weekend or no later than Tuesday.

It’s worth noting that the USDA says you can use a microwave to thaw a turkey, but many cooks don’t know that you can actually cook a frozen turkey, unthawed. The baking time will be at least 50 percent more than if you’d thawed it, so think 4 to 6 hours instead of 2 or 3.

RELATED: Read all USDA guidelines on thawing turkeys

Before you can brine a turkey, you have to thaw it, which can take several days in the fridge or a cooler with water and plastic bags of ice. Addie Broyles / American-Statesman

Which method do I use when I roast a turkey? Because I have a small fridge and the cold water method wastes too much water and it too tedious, I thaw turkeys in a cooler packed with water and ice bags three days before I plan to roast the turkey. When it’s time to brine the night before, I place the turkey in one of those big plastic zip-top brining or roasting bags and put the bag in an emptied vegetable drawer.

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