Culinary Christmas Series – Review 2 of 4

This is the second installment of my four-part series, reviewing the recipes I tried for the first time this holiday season.  In Review 1, I covered Christmas Spice Cookies, Whiskey Caramel Sauce and Candied “Limoncello” Peel.  Now, let’s take a look at Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Icing, Breakfast “Cupcakes” and Blueberry Lemon Bundt Cake.

Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Icing (adapted from Pioneer Woman)

Cinnamon Rolls

Listen, I don’t want to pat myself on the back or anything, but these things were freaking amazing.  Neither my husband nor I could stop eating them. We had a slap fight over the last of them. That said, these suckers are not quick, easy or low in calories.  So, this is definitely a special-occasion recipe.  But, holy cannoli, so worth it.

I did not alter anything about the recipe for the rolls themselves.  In fact, I followed the recipe to the letter, because this was one of my first attempts at working with yeast that didn’t involve an actual bread maker.  The only deviation was the milk – I didn’t have a full quart of milk, so I used heavy cream and about 1/2 cup of buttermilk.  Given the results, I would do it again.

And where the Pioneer Woman says not to be shy about the butter or the sugar, I was most definitely not.  I do not know how much sugar and cinnamon I ended up using, but I did use four full sticks of butter.  (Now, stop it.  I made 32 cinnamon rolls, and some of that was used to grease the baking dishes …)

Can I say also that any recipe calling for “punching” anything as part of the prep is a winner in my book.  I left the dough in the fridge overnight.  In the morning, it had risen considerable.  I did, in fact, punch it.  Cathartic.  Especially at 6:00 a.m. on a vacation day.

A few notes on slicing and baking off:

  • When I sliced my rolls, I got 18 rolls from the first log of dough and 16 rolls from the second.  The recipe states that each log should yield 20 – 25 rolls.  I think you’d either have to roll the dough too thin or cut the rolls too thin to get that yield.  I rolled the dough to about 1/4″ thick, and I cut the rolls about 3/4″ thick.
  • For the baking, the recipe recommends placing the rolls in pie pans, but I didn’t have enough handy, so I put the rolls into 9 x 13 baking dishes.  I tried not to pack the rolls in too tightly, but they were touching.  The effect was to increase the cooking time from 18 minutes to about 25 minutes. I took them out when all the rolls had a nice golden brown top and the butter on the sides of the pan was bubbly.  The centermost rolls were slightly doughier than the outer rolls, but they were not undercooked.  The different was due I think more to the butter on the sides of the baking dish touching the outer rolls, giving them a crustier outer texture.

The thing I really altered from the recipe was the icing.  Maple is not one of my all-time favorite flavors (except on pancakes), and it’s hard for my taste buds to imagine anything other than cream-cheese-laden icing oozing off a warm ball of doughy, buttery, sugary cinnamon.  For the cream cheese icing, I whipped about 1/2 cup of cream cheese until smooth, added 1/2 cup of milk and 2 teaspoons of vanilla and whipped until blended, then I added powdered sugar in 1/4 cup increments until the icing was thick but still pourable – probably somewhere around 1 cup.  Ultimately, this was enough icing to cover both pans.  If you have more than you need, store it in an airtight container in the fridge.

We baked one pan of rolls that morning.  The second pan we put in the fridge, still covered with a kitchen towel, for two days.  Equally good after baking.

Breakfast “Cupcakes” (adapted from The Cooking Jar) Unlike the cinnamon rolls, these little delights are easy.  They also provide a handy way to serve bacon, eggs, cheese and hash browns like a finger food.

A few tips and changes:

  • Coat your muffin tins with butter, not nonstick spray.  The butter will do the double-duty work of keeping everything from sticking to the tins but also crisping the hash brown “liners.”
  • Really press the hash browns into the tin sides and bottom.  You aren’t going to need a really deep “cup,” because the egg will ooze a little into the spaces between the potato.
  • I don’t particularly care for runny egg yolk, so I scrambled eight eggs together with a little milk, salt and pepper, then poured the mixture into each cup until it was level with the pan.  Baking time was equivalent, and the added benefit was that the eggs rise, making the whole think look just like a cupcake.  This would be a great time to show you a photo … if I’d been smart enough to take one.  Ahem.
  • Remove the “cupcakes” from the pan right away to avoid sticking.  I used a small frosting spatula, which worked well.
  • Serve immediately.  Cold eggs get rubbery, which is gross.  We had two “cupcakes” left over, so I threw them in a zipper-seal bag and refrigerated them.  I reheated them the next day using the toaster oven set at 350 F.  Took about 10 minutes.  Still good.
  • I do NOT recommend using a microwave to reheat.  The hash browns will get soggy and eggs rubbery and it will smell good but taste like a mouthful of horrible, and you will be upset AND hungry (= HANGRY), which just is not how you want to start a morning.  So I’ve heard.

Blueberry Lemon Bundt Cake (adapted from Martha Stewart) Oh, Martha.  Martha, Martha, Martha.  I want to hate you, but then you put out little gems like this.  Blueberry muffins are one of the best inventions ever (says the girl who has an unrivaled carb addiction).  Pound cake is one of the best inventions ever.  (CARB.  ADDICTION.)  This cake is what happens when blueberry muffins and pound cake collide into a spectacular lemony, moist, dense, flavorful break-ssert.

Right from the oven - a beautiful, golden-brown crusty top.

Right from the oven – a beautiful, golden-brown crusty top.

Inverted and waiting for a snowfall of confectioners' sugar

Inverted after cooling and waiting for a snowfall of confectioners’ sugar

The only thing I altered for this recipe was to substitute plain Greek yogurt for the sour cream.  My favorite is Siggi’s, because it is so dense.  (Siggi’s did not compensate me in any way to say this, but – you know – I wouldn’t be offended or anything if they sent me some free stuff.)

Couple of tips:

  • Bundt pans are unforgiving little bastards.  If so much as a crumb gets stuck in the pan when you invert the cake, it’s hard to fix the blemish.  So, I recommend prepping your bundt pan with nonstick spray, which will ensure you get a good coat in every crevice.  Pay special attention to the inner circle of the pan, all the way up to the rim.  This is where many a bundt-cake-dream is crushed.
  • Follow the directions for cooling the cake before inversion carefully.  No one likes a cake decorated with the salt of your tears.
  • If you make this cake ahead, I suggest serving the slices slightly toasted and dressed with a pat of butter.  You’re welcome.

Next series:

Culinary Christmas Series – Review 1 of 4

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but that’s only because I’ve been extra busy in the kitchen!  I had big plans for an epic Thanksgiving post, but that will have to wait until next October.  (One of you needs to remind me before Halloween, thanks.)  In the meantime, though, I wanted to share with you what I made this Christmas to give away as gifts and for noshing on Christmas morning.

I went full-on experimental this season; instead of tried-and-true recipes, everything I made was a first-run effort (with maybe one or two do-overs … no one’s counting). Here’s the lineup:

  • Christmas Spice Cookies
  • Whiskey Caramel Sauce
  • Candied “Limoncello” Peel
  • Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Icing
  • Breakfast “Cupcakes”
  • Blueberry Lemon Bundt Cake
  • Spiced Pear Vodka
  • Liquored-Up Lollipops
  • Caramel Bourbon Sauce
  • Gin & Tonic Truffles
  • Chocolate “Munchkins”
  • Dark Lemon Cordial

In this post, I review results for Christmas Spice Cookies, Whiskey Caramel Sauce and Candied “Limoncello” Peel.  Review #2 will include Cinnamon Rolls with Cream Cheese Icing, Breakfast “Cupcakes” and Blueberry Lemon Bundt.  Review #3:  Spiced Pear Vodka, Liquored-up Lollipops and Caramel Bourbon Sauce.  Then, Review #4 will wrap up the series with Gin & Tonic Truffles, Chocolate “Munchkins” and Dark Lemon Cordial.

Christmas Spice Cookies (recipe adapted from Citrus and Candy)

Christmas Spice Cookies

True to the recipe author’s promise, these are chewy little bites of exactly the spicy-sweet I imagine Christmas would taste of if you could eat it.  A couple of lessons learned from this:

  • I was out of vanilla beans (you’ll see why below), so I substituted vanilla powder in both the cookies and the icing.  I chose the powder instead of the extract because it does not alter the color of your dough and I thought it might be a little more intense flavor wise.  I don’t think the substitution left the cookies lacking in flavor.  Vanilla beans are really expensive, so if you want to make this substitution to save cost (especially if you’re making these in large batches), you should be okay.
  • Take the recipe author’s advice about letting the dough sit so the flavors develop. I did not with my first batch, because impatient.  There was a noticeable difference in the intensity of the flavor in the second batch, which did sit.
  • I did not add the all spice to the icing, because that felt like overkill to me with the great flavor of the cookies.  Instead, I doubled the cinnamon to two pinches.  This made the icing a little darker (to the brown side) than it appears in the pictures, but it really complemented the cookies well.
  • I did not make the vanilla sea salt.  Instead, I used gray sea salt, which I love.  This was just personal preference for me. I love vanilla, but vanilla in the cookies, the icing and the salt seemed like overkill.  The beauty of these cookies is the multiplicity of flavors.
  • Icing these is awesomely easy.  Storing them, not as much.  The icing does “harden” after about an hour or so, making storage much easier.  If you have to stack the cookies to store or box them, parchment or wax paper is your friend between layers. If the cookies warm much beyond room temp, the icing will soften and make a mess, so the parchment or wax paper will help minimize it.
  • I recommend you err on the side of undercooking.  There is a span of about 30 seconds between when the cookies will stay chewy when cooled and when they will seem soft but dry.  When the author says “firm to the touch” read that to mean “when the cookie gives any kind of resistance to the touch of your finger.”

Whiskey Caramel Sauce (adapted from Food52 / Becky Rosenthal at Vintage Mixer)

I made two batches of this recipe, which yielded 9 four-ounce servings plus about two ounces.  This is less than the yield stated in the recipe. It might have been because I kept taking out spoonfuls to “test” it.  Possibly.  Maybe.  What?  I had bacon.

I stored the servings in Mason jars, which I decorated with ribbon and labels (same idea you see in the photos on the recipe website, but with a holiday design), and I gave them away as part of gift baskets I made for friends and family.

No modifications except that I used sea salt for the salt called for in the recipe, because I like the stronger flavor and how it cuts the sweetness just enough.

A couple of things to note:

  • If you pour this into the Mason jars while the caramel is still hot, do not be alarmed if the jar lids “pop” as the caramel cools.
  • This pairs beautifully with cookies, brownies, apple pie, ice cream and coffee.  It also functions as a lovely dip for bacon.  I hear.  From a friend.
  • It needs to be refrigerated if not used within a day (because of the dairy).  When refrigerated, the sauce may separate but you should be able to shake it or stir it back into a whole.  Serving at room temp is fine.  If heating, I like to put the jar into a pot of simmering water for a few minutes.  I’ve burned myself one too many times on sauces reheated in the microwave, so I’m bitter and old-school.

Candied “Limoncello” Peel (adapted from The Kitchn)candied lemon peel

Booze, sugar and holidays go together for me.  Palate preference?  Coping mechanism?  Who’s to say? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.  But, sticking with my theme, I adapted this recipe for candied lemon peel to make it full of boozy, sugary goodness by making two important modifications.

First, instead of using a vegetable peeler to remove the lemon peel, I cut the whole lemon in half width-wise.  Then, I used a sharp paring knife to separate the fruit from the peel.  I flattened the peel, then used the paring knife to remove most (but not all) of the pith from the rind.  I then cut the peel length-wise into 1/8″ – 1/4″ strips.  It is definitely more work, but I found it worth the effort.  Instead of a papery slice of rind, you get a chewy, gumdrop-like bite that more closely resembles candy than jerky.  Note that leaving some of the pith behind to get this result with the texture means that the peel will retain more bitterness.  If you will eat the finished peels like candy, you may want to boil them down a third time if the bitterness is too much for you.

Second, I substituted 1/4 cup of the cold water with 1/4 cup of cold rum (but any high-proof, clear alcohol would work).  This infused the peels with a mild liquor flavor that, when combined with the sugar coating, gives the finished peels a flavor reminiscent of Limoncello.

A couple of things to note:

  • Be patient.  It will take a long time for the sauce to develop into a syrup.  I let mine go the full 60 minutes recommended in the recipe, but I cook on an electric cooktop.  (NOT BY CHOICE!)  If you are using a gas cooktop, cooking time may go faster.  No matter what, though, keep an eye on the pot when you get about 30 minutes in.  If the sugar starts turning darker to any degree, you are done cooking!
  • Save the syrup after removing the peel.  It is delicious in tea, over pound cake or added to a fresh-fruit salad.  Keep it in the fridge.  It will keep a long time.
  • I did not use wax paper coated with cooking spray as suggested in the recipe. I just felt like I didn’t want any of that cooking spray soaking into the lemon peels and messing with the flavor. Instead, I used a dry piece of parchment.  I did not have problems with sticking.
  • Make sure the peels are still warm when coating with sugar (if doing this step).  You will need more sugar than you think, because some of it will melt into the peels.  You cannot possibly over-sugar the peels (remember:  bitter pith) so don’t be afraid to pour it on.  You can reserve the excess sugar, which will now be infused with a mild lemon flavor, for another use (but use within a few days or discard).
  • I stored the finished peels in clear Mason jars.  7 lemons filled six 6-ounce Mason jars with 15 pieces of lemon peel with a few pieces left over for me!

If you make any of these great treats, I’d love to hear about your experience – especially if you made changes to the recipe you think improves it!

Sunday Dinner: Chicken and Orzo with Garlic Bread

This week’s Sunday Dinner is my ultimate comfort food, is what I would request for my last meal (provided either I can prepare it myself or can reincarnate my grandfather to make it for me), and is the official birthday dinner for my sister.   Welcome to the gastronomic utopia that is:  chicken and orzo.

chicken orzo mise en place


1 whole chicken (this one is a little bit more than 6 pounds)

2 sticks unsalted butter (melted)

Juice of 4 large lemons (reserve 3 lemon halves after juicing)

8 – 10 cloves of garlic

1 medium onion (cut into about 6-8 large chunks)

8 – 10 sprigs fresh thyme

10 – 12  sprigs fresh oregano

12 – 16 basil leaves

2 tbsp fresh or dried parsley

1 lb. orzo pasta

kosher salt

ground black pepper

About 8″ of kitchen twine

dried basil, thyme and oregano (optional)

garlic powder (optional)


Preheat oven to 400°F.

First prepare the ingredients that will go into the chicken.  Melt the butter. Gather the oregano, thyme and basil.  Juice your lemons, then drop 3 lemon halves into the lemon juice.  Peel the garlic.  Peel and cut the onion.  Grab your salt and pepper and keep near your work area.

herb mise en place

You will need a roasting pan.  I prefer one that has a grate in it, because it allows heat to circulate under the chicken, and it prevents the chicken from sticking to the bottom of the pan.  But, a roasting pan without a grate it fine.  What’s important is that your pan is large enough to hold the chicken while still allowing a little clearance around the circumference (e.g., the chicken should not touch the sides of the pan).

raw whole chicken

Make sure you clean out the chicken’s neck and stomach cavities.  I discard the heart, liver, kidneys and neck.  Rinse the chicken in cool water (inside and out) then pat dry with paper towels.

Stuff the lemon halves, onion, garlic, oregano, basil and thyme into the chicken’s stomach cavity.  You want to pack these ingredients in so that the entire cavity is filled.  You may want also to loosen the skin a bit and slide some of the garlic and herbs under it.

The point of this is twofold.  First, filling the stomach cavity keeps the chicken from drying out while roasting.  Second, doing this infuses the chicken with great flavor.

filling chicken cavity

Once you’ve stuffed the chicken, you need to truss it.  Sort of.  I do a kind of cheap truss, which is designed only to keep all that stuff you just … um … stuffed … into the chicken inside.  You’ll need some kitchen twine:

kitchen twine

Basically, you fold the flap of skin/fat on the outside of the cavity over the opening, then pull the drumsticks together to keep that in place.  Tie the legs together in a figure-eight and secure with a knot.


Place the trussed chicken into the roasting pan breast-side up.  Pour the melted butter over the chicken to cover the entire bird.  You can use a pastry brush to spread butter around if needed.

buttering chicken

Now, sprinkle the top of the chicken with salt and pepper.  I also added a little dried oregano, garlic powder and basil to mine.  (NOTE:  Use only garlic powder.  Do NOT use garlic salt.  The only reason garlic salt even exists is for popcorn.)

adding herbs to outside

Tent your roasting pan with foil (or the lid) and place in the oven.  Roasting time is approximately 15 minutes per pound, but I really, really, really encourage you to use a meat thermometer to ensure you don’t under or overcook.  Ideal temperature (measured by inserting the thermometer in the thickest part of the breast and avoiding bone) is 170°F.

meat thermometer

When the chicken is done, remove from oven and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes before carving.

While the chicken is resting, prepare the orzo.  Fill a large pot with water, a four-finger pinch of salt, a splash of olive oil and about one-quarter of the lemon juice.  Place on stove to boil.

prepare orzo

When water comes to boil, add the orzo.  Cook about 9 minutes – only to al dente.  Drain the orzo, then return to pot.  Pour the remaining lemon juice over the orzo and stir to blend.

Strain the drippings from your roasting pan to remove any solids and reserve the liquid.  Pour the strained liquid over the orzo and stir to blend.

finished orzo

I like to serve this with steamed carrots and string beans.  This time, though, I had only carrots and I roasted them for 45 minutes with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.  I also made a tossed green salad of red-leaf lettuce, diced Vidalia onion, sliced cucumbers, dressed with an Italian vinaigrette.

But, the most important addition to this meal – and this cannot be understated – is the garlic bread.  This garlic bread is so good, my husband is a little bit pissed off I am sharing the recipe.  I will warn you, though, that the reason the garlic bread is so delish is that it is basically a ton of butter with a side of bread.  It is not for the weak of heart or wide of waist.  Unless, of course, you want to die with an enormous smile on your face and an immensely satisfied belly.

Garlic Bread Ingredients

garlic bread mise en place

Yes. This is my shitty electric cooktop. I make miracles happen on this thing. I mean, seriously – I have to defy the laws of physics and chemistry to make this thing work.

1 large loaf French bread (white or wheat okay, but not sour) (Seriously, though, wheat bread?  I mean, what’s the point? Unless, you know, it eases your conscience a little …)

2 sticks salted butter

Garlic powder

Dried basil

Dried oregano


Melt the butter in a shallow skillet over low heat.  Slice the French bread into 1/2″-thick slices. Dunk one side of each slice in the melted butter.  Place buttered slices on cookie sheet.

dunking bread

Sprinkle the buttered slices with garlic powder, basil and oregano to taste.  (“To taste” in my house means “a lot.”)

garlic bread pre cook

Broil on top rack of oven for about 5 minutes or until tops look golden and toasty.  WATCH WHILE BROILING.  There is about a millisecond between perfectly toasted and frantically waving a kitchen towel around underneath the smoke detector.

finished garlic bread

Before you sit down to eat, take a moment to inhale deeply.  Smell that?  Smells like a giant hug, right?  Isn’t that marvelous?


Sunday Dinner: Tomato Meat Sauce

It was actually Grandma Rose – not my grandfather – who taught me how to make tomato sauce.  I usually tell people I use her recipe, but I’ve changed it to the point that even she wouldn’t recognize it now.  The changes are for the better though.  And while I’ve kept the recipe a closely guarded secret, that seems silly to me now.  My children are not as in love with food as am I, and one of the things I love best about food is sharing it with others.

So, here it is, my tomato meat sauce recipe – complete with all the inside how-to tips and random musings.


  • fresh basil
  • fresh thyme
  • fresh oregano
  • fresh parsley
  • 9 cloves garlic
  • kosher salt
  • black pepper (ground)
  • 1 large sweet onion
  • garden ripe tomatoes
  • 1 lb. ground mild Italian (pork) sausage
  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • olive oil
  • 2/3 cup good-quality red wine

But wait … you didn’t say how much I need for each of these ingredients!

That’s right. I didn’t. Because, honestly?  I don’t know.  I eyeball it.  I taste. I taste again.  I add a little more.  When you’re cooking (as opposed to baking, which is more science-y and exact), measurements and quantities are more of a guide than a rule.  So, in the instructions below, I give you good estimates for how much to use, but you can adjust as needed depending on your personal taste, the quality of your tomatoes and herbs and the desired thickness of your sauce.

Mise en Place

Before you do anything else, assemble all of your ingredients and get them into the state you need them.  That way, when the steps start moving fast, you are ready and more likely to get good results (or at least not serve your meal to firemen).

Mise en place (things in place) refers to the gathering, washing, peeling, measuring, chopping, sifting, etc of ingredients before you start cooking.

Let’s start with the tomatoes.  I use at least 12 and sometimes as many as 16 tomatoes.  I prefer tomatoes that are right on the border of overripe.  Stay away from Roma and Beefsteak tomatoes. Some folks swear Romas make the best sauce, but I think they make the sauce too sweet.  Beefsteaks are a sturdy tomato for slicing into salads or onto burgers, but that quality makes them less than ideal when you want to cook them down into a pulpy goodness, and I think cooking robs them of their flavor.

If you can find them, San Marzano tomatoes make the most flavorful sauce.  Otherwise, I favor Italian heirloom tomatoes.  Most grocery store tomatoes are crappy hot-house varieties, so if you have access to a farmer’s market (or plants in your backyard), you can’t beat that.

Wash your tomatoes, remove any stems (and those unbelievably annoying stickers that grocery stores use) and place the tomatoes in a large stock pot.  DO NOT ADD ANYTHING.  I mean it.  Nothing.  No water.  No salt.  Nothing.  Whole tomatoes in the pot, skins and all.  Place the pot over low heat and set a timer for 60 minutes.

Now, let’s work on the herbs.

First, a general tip:  I encourage you to use fresh herbs whenever possible to pump up the nutritive value of what you’re cooking.  If this is new to you, don’t freak out about the quantities.  It takes a lot more fresh herbs to achieve a desired flavor than it takes dried herbs, because the drying process concentrates the flavor.  That said, though, cooks who find themselves frustrated by a lack of flavor from fresh herbs are victims of bad plants. When buying herbs, smell them first.  The herbs should smell immediately and distinctly like what you’re buying.  If you pick up a bunch of, say, parsley and it doesn’t smell like anything to you (or it smells like freshly mowed grass but not peppery), don’t buy it.


I use about 12 sprigs of fresh thyme.  (A sprig is a single stem).  Thyme has a lemony flavor and smell that complements the acidity of the tomatoes.

We want only the leaves here, not the stems.  The easiest way I know to remove the leaves is to grab the top of the stem and slide your thumb and forefinger on your opposite hand down the stem (against the direction of leaf growth).  The leaves should come right off.  If you leave behind small pieces of stem from the top of each sprig, that’s fine.  The top of the stem is pretty soft and can be chopped up with the leaves.  Be sure to discard the harder pieces of stem as they don’t soften when cooked.  (I find people generally oppose finding sticks in their food.)

About 12 sprigs

About 12 sprigs of thyme

Once you’ve removed the leaves, chop them by gently running a sharp knife through them.  Here’s the consistency you want:

Strip the leaves from the sprigs, then run knife through to chop

Strip the leaves from the sprigs, then run knife through to chop


I use about 18 sprigs of oregano.  Some people say that oregano and thyme taste the “same.”  That’s not my experience.  To me, thyme is distinctly lemony where oregano is more earthy and rich.

We want only the leaves again, so same process here as with the thyme to remove leaves from stems.

This is about 18 sprigs

This is about 18 sprigs of fresh oregano

Now, chop it up.  You’ll have to run the knife through more times with oregano than with thyme, because oregano’s leaves are much larger.

Strip leaves from sprigs and run knife through to chop to this consistency

Strip leaves from sprigs and run knife through to chop to this consistency

Now to the parsley.  Usually, I use Italian flat-leaf parsley, because it has a strong peppery flavor that I like.  Curled-leaf parsley (the stuff that garnishes your plate at not-so-fancy restaurants) has a much milder flavor.  But, the day I went to the farmer’s market, this bunch of curled-leaf parsley smelled amazing.

It’s hard for me to tell you how much this is other than it’s a small bunch.  If you buy parsley in the grocery store, it’s not usually a small bunch – this is maybe 1/4 to 1/2 that amount.  I cut off the thickest part of the stalks up to where the leaves begin.

a small bunch of parsley with stalks cut away

a small bunch of parsley with stalks cut away

Chop it up.  You’ll want to chop this well, because the stalks are thick as they continue up through the leaves.

rough chop and remove any remaining large stalks

rough chop and remove any remaining large stalks


This is a (very) large sweet onion.  You can use any white or yellow onion you like, although I stay away from Vidalia onions because they infuse the sauce with a sweetness that isn’t quite right.  I don’t recommend red or purple onions; they just don’t have the right flavor profile.

Disclosure:  I was going to take pictures of the fancy way I chop onions, but this little bastard made me bawl.  My eyes were on FIRE about 2 seconds after I made the first slice.  I’ll save it for a day when I remember to wear goggles and my husband can hold the camera.  Long story short, chop that bad boy up.  Quick.

Yep.  The whole thing.  *sniff sniff*

Yep. The whole thing. *sniff sniff*

This is probably about 1.5 cups chopped

This is probably about 1.5 cups chopped



More or less 9 cloves.

Peel and clean 9 cloves of garlic.  I feel the need to make sure you know the difference between a bulb and a clove of garlic.  Because, I know someone (who I shall not name because I love this person, and I sometimes have to share a bed with her on girls’ weekends) who confused the two and made a dish of scampi that I think we might’ve been able to smell in her kitchen ten years later.  So – a bulb of garlic is the whole thing.  A clove is one of the sections underneath the bulb’s papery, white skin.

Mince it.

Now, grab your bottle of olive oil.  Not that “light flavored” stuff. That’s for salad dressing. You want a full-flavored olive oil. Then, open a bottle of red wine.  A BOTTLE.  NOT A BOX.  The rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t cook with wine you wouldn’t drink, but I know my friends too well, and that rule doesn’t work.

Here, I used 2/3 cup of Merlot. (Note: if you cannot or would prefer not to use wine, you can substitute a high-quality balsamic vinegar, but reduce the amount by about half.)

Now, grab your kosher salt and your ground black pepper.  Unpackage the sausage and the ground beef.  Get everything near your cooking surface.  It’s time to add some heat!

The finished miss en place.

The finished miss en place.  Added here:  pork sausage, salt, black pepper, red wine and olive oil.

If you don’t have mad knife skills (or a decent set of sharp knives), your tomatoes are probably done now.  Magically, there will be at least an inch of water in the pot where once was none.  Also, the tomatoes have cracked and fall apart easily when lifted.  If your tomatoes aren’t to this point yet, let them continue to simmer and check them every 15 minutes or so.`

12 tomatoes.  I prefer San Marzano tomatoes when I can find them.  Romas tend to be too sweet, and beefsteak tomatoes don't have enough flavor.

12 tomatoes stewed to perfection.  Stick a fork in them.  They are done.

Take the tomatoes off the heat and put aside.  Grab your biggest skillet (mine is a 10-inch French skillet that I adore with unreasonable affection).  Coat the bottom of the skillet with olive oil.  If I had to guess how much I used, I’d say at least two tablespoons.  Probably three.

Set the heat to medium-high.

About 4 turns of olive oil in a 10-inch french skillet over medium-high heat

About 4 turns of olive oil in a 10-inch french skillet over medium-high heat

Add the onions and spread them around to coat with the olive oil and evenly distribute heat.  You’re going to cook the onions until they are translucent.  DO NOT BURN THEM.  Burnt onions are delicious in, say, home-fried potatoes.  But, they are the opposite of delicious in tomato sauce or soup.  Instead, they add an intensely acrid flavor that will ruin your dish.

Add the onions and cook until translucent.  About 5 min.

Add the onions and cook until translucent. About 5 min.

While the onions are cooking, let’s go back to the tomatoes.  We need to smash them into a tomato-y pulp.  The best tool for this is an immersion blender.  If you don’t own one of these, you need to get one.  Game. changer.

In the meantime, though, you can use a blender.  Just be careful as you transfer the tomatoes and liquid, because HOT.  Hothothothothot.  Or, if you are okay with or prefer a chunky tomato sauce, you can smash these up with a potato masher.  Using the “manual” method, though, will mean you will have some pieces of skin and obvious seeds in your sauce.  If kids are involved, that can be a deal-breaker.  Ask me how I know.

Smashing tomatoes.

Smashing tomatoes.

Once the tomatoes are emulsified into smooth liquid, you will want to add tomato paste to thicken the consistency of the sauce.  How much you add depends on how thick you want your sauce.  I like mine thicker than soup – closer to stew.  That usually takes one tube of paste.  If your tomatoes released a lot of water, it may take more.  I’ve never used more than two tubes.  Yet.

I prefer tomato paste that comes in the tube, because it's much easier to get out of the container!

I prefer tomato paste that comes in the tube, because it’s much easier to get out of the container!

Now, add the wine (or vinegar).  Feel free to test it to make sure it’s the right flavor.  Are you sure?  Maybe one more test?


Some of the sauce.  Some for me.  Some of the sau … Nope.  Me again.

Now blend that all in.  Go back to your onions.  Add the garlic.  Mix it around and let it cook another two minutes or so – until you can really smell the garlic.  (Man, I am hungry.)

Add the garlic to the onions and cook another two minutes or so to release aroma

Add the garlic to the onions and cook another two minutes or so to release aroma

Add the ground sausage.  Ground Italian sausage is freaking delicious, but it is super fatty.  So, it doesn’t crumble without a lot of effort.  You will have to mash it around in the pan to get it “crumbly” as it cooks.  What I mean here is that you have to beat the holy crap out of it with a wooden spoon.  (Italian mothers everywhere are nodding up and down right now.)


Beat your meat.  NO.  NOT THAT YOU SICKO.

As the sausage cooks and you break it apart with the spoon, it will look like this:



When the sausage is nearly cooked through, add the ground beef.  I strongly recommend  using 80% lean ground beef.  This isn’t a health-food dish (see the three tablespoons of olive oil, supra).  This is Sunday dinner.  You want beef that will release fat when cooked, because fat = flavor.  Yummy, yummy goodness.


This is 1.25 pounds of 80% lean ground beef

Cut the ground beef into the sausage, onions and garlic.  Continue cooking until you don’t see any obvious pink spots.  Be sure to break down any larger chunks.



Once the meat is cooked, add it – and EVERYTHING ELSE in the pan – to the sauce.  Yeah, that’s right.  The fat, too.  Don’t you dare drain it into an empty soup can.  I mean it.


Scratch and sniff.

Next, add all of the herbs (thyme, oregano, parsley).  Stir to blend.



Then, add your salt and pepper.  This is a four-finger pinch of ground black pepper and two five-finger pinches of salt.  Stir and let it cook over low heat for about ten minutes before you taste it.


Add salt and pepper to taste.

Ready for the first taste test?  Here’s a tip:  don’t taste food that’s super hot.  Beside it being painful to burn your tongue, the heat prevents your taste buds from working properly.  Remove a small spoonful of sauce from pan and wait until it cools just to warm, then taste. Add more salt or pepper as you need.

My sauce was very tangy on first taste.  Although I’m partial to acidic flavors, it needed a little help to mellow.  So, I put in about two teaspoons of sugar.



Finally, I added about 1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes.  My goal here is NOT to make the sauce hot-spicy.  (If you want arrabiata sauce, go to town with those pepper flakes!)  Instead, the flakes add a mild spice that cuts the sugar to prevent over-sweetness.



Now, let the sauce continue to cook over low heat for at least an hour.  After that, serve over whatever pasta or vegetables you like.  You can also use it for lasagna, stuffed shells or baked ziti.  This is enough sauce to make a 9×13 lasagna with a little to spare.

Ideally, leave the sauce in the refrigerator and use the next day.  The flavor intensifies with time.

Sauce will keep in the refrigerator for about a week and in the freezer for up to three months, depending on the air-tightness of the container you use to store it.