The Lemon Twist

“I see dead people.”That’s probably the most famous line in The Sixth Sense, the most famous movie from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan, whom the entire Matthews family band delights in calling, “M. Night Shamma-Lama Ding-Dong”.  His movies are famous for their twist endings.  And, with twist endings, comes the risk of someone giving the ending away, which is what Andy Richter, Conan O’Brian’s sidekick, did.  This was a couple of years after the movie came out, but he still caused a huge ruckus.When it comes to a twist ending, I love it.  But I also hate it.  And very often I’ll ruin it for myself, even as I am fully aware that I’m also draining all the fun out of it.  I’m the same way about presents (both giving and receiving).  Many of my gift recipients get them weeks before the actual event because I just can’t wait. As a child, there were many gifts for which my surprise was feigned and looked like they’d been rewrapped by a little kid with both frantic subterfuge and guilty haste. But, the twist, the fancy footwork which demolishes expectations, I love it.  Shirley Jackson’s writing, The Twilight Zone, and later, The Night Gallery, all are excellent examples of the literary head fake.  Horror lends itself to a big, surprising reveal.

Gooey butter cake is delicious, but so rich it’s killed more men than the Spanish flu…

Gooey butter cake is a rich, velvety confection.  It’s the simpler home version of a cake made famous by bakeries in St. Louis.  But both versions are super rich, super sweet, and should probably be a very seldom treat; the home versions have upwards of 16 tablespoons of butter (two sticks) and full-fat cream cheese.

When The Kid and I needed a dessert for a picnic type spread, I decided to make a new recipe I’d discovered online and modified a bit—a twist on gooey butter cake.

Lemon White Chocolate Gooey Barslemon gooeyYield: 9-12 bar

15.25 oz super moist lemon cake mix

½ cup butter, softened

1 egg

½ cup sugar

¼ cup milk

juice of half a lemon

1 cup white chocolate chips-make sure the chips have cocoa butter as one of the first few ingredients, otherwise it’s just flavored wax, and not real white chocolate 

½ cup sweetened condensed milk + 2 tablespoons if needed


Combine cake mix, butter, egg, sugar, lemon juice and milk and mix until smooth.

Spray 9×9 pan with cooking spray, line bottom and sides of pan with parchment paper, then spray parchment.

Add a little more than half the batter to bottom of pan by dropping spoonsful into pan, then spread evenly.

Sprinkle white chocolate chips in even layer on top of batter.Pour sweetened condensed milk in even layer on top of white chocolate chips- if necessary, use extra two tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk to fill in bare spots.

Drop spoonsful of remaining dough on top, spreading to cover the best you can.

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, turning pan 180 degrees halfway through.

Allow to cool completely in pan, then cut into squares. Store bars in airtight container in fridge for 7-10 days.The twists here are the procedure, which makes it more of a layered construction, the lemon juice to eliminate any artificial flavor from the cake mix, and the white chocolate chips which give it a pop of flavor and texture.

And the final Twilight Zonian twist is that these bars can put you in a trance.  They’re so good that if you’re not careful, it’s possible to eat the whole pan without even realizing it.Thanks for your time.


Giving Lemons Life

When I was in the fifth grade my boyfriend was Michael Weiss.  He was also the first Jewish kid I ever knew.  His mom and dad owned a bookstore just off base.

In the store they had a fish tank with only one occupant.  A piranha.  How cool was that?  It was the first and last time I was ever up close and personal with the mythic gilled beast of the Amazon.I also experienced another first with Michael.  I was 11—don’t get any ideas.  It led to a life-long passion which, throughout my life, has brought me an unknowable amount of joy.

Bagels and cream cheese.I love bread.  If it wouldn’t put me into an early grave, I could easily live on bread and butter.  So, as you might imagine, I’m sorta fond of bagels.

And what’s not to love about cream cheese?  It’s the cheese in cheesecake.  It makes everything it touches become creamier and a little tangy.  I could, and in fact have eaten it all by itself.  I love it.The Kid really does not.  It could be that tangy funk or maybe it’s a texture thing, but my child’s not having it.  Except for crab Rangoon and the creamy filling of strawberry pizza, it does not pass The Kid’s lips.  Red velvet cake is a favorite, but not with cream cheese frosting.

And cream cheese frosting doesn’t really thrill me either.  I don’t know why, but it is the one frosting that I wouldn’t knock over a little old lady for.

Fine, Lady.  Then keep your damn ganache.


I’ve recently been toying with a dessert which calls for cream cheese frosting.  It’s the uncommon combo of lemon cake adorned with the icing.  It’s likely the play between the lightness of citrus with the frosting’s richness.  Everybody’s onboard for this.

Even me.  Even The Kid.

This recipe is adapted from the website, Once Upon a Chef.  It’s fresh, light and moist.

Buttermilk Lemon Cakelemon layer cake   3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup butter, softened

2-1/4 cups granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla

3 large eggs

1 cup buttermilk

2 tablespoons grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juicePreheat the oven to 325.  Grease and flour two eight or nine-inch round pans.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In an electric mixer, cream the butter, sugar, and vanilla until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.

In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, lemon zest and lemon juice.

With the mixer on low speed, beat in flour mixture and the buttermilk mixture.  Alternate, beginning and ending with the flour; flour, buttermilk, flour, buttermilk, flour.  Beat until well-mixed and smooth, but don’t overbeat.Divide the batter in half and spoon into the prepared pans.  Smooth with spatula. Bake for 1 hour and 5 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean, but moist.

Cool the cake in the pan for ten minutes.  Turn cakes out onto cooling racks and let cool completely.

When cool, frost with cream cheese frosting.

Classic Philadelphia Cream Cheese Frostingcream cheese frosting2-8 ounce packages PHILADELPHIA Cream Cheese, softened

½ cup butter

2 tsp. vanilla

2 16-ounce boxes powdered sugar (about 7 ½ cups)

2 teaspoons salt

Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla until well-mixed.  Slowly add powdered sugar and beat on low until smooth and fluffy.Generously frost cake.  Refrigerate until frosting’s set and then refrigerate any leftovers.

This is the perfect cake for a summer evening on the front porch.  Or, if you don’t live in Mayberry in the 1950s, any place and time you like.Thanks for your time.

Kitchen prestidigitation

I’m not sure what will happen.

The Kid no longer eats orzo.  “It’s a texture thing,” my child insists.

I, on the other hand, love the rice-shaped pasta.  It works really well with a light dressing, and smaller pieces of veggies and proteins.  For some reason I equate it to the spring, with lemon, asparagus, and ramps.

By disliking orzo, The Kid has ended up on the horns of a dilemma.  I recently discovered an orzo recipe that will send my spawn into vapors of indecision.

For while the recipe is a one-pot, no strain pasta, which is pretty darn cool, that pasta is orzo, which usually given no love.

The other dilemma that may change everything is the author of the recipe.  It is Melissa D’Arabian, winner of Food Network’s Next Network star.

The year that Melissa competed, we watched every episode, and Melissa caught our eye.   She wasn’t loud or a drama queen, in fact she seemed to have no time for crazy.

What riveted us to the screen was her quiet confidence.

In that she reminded us of JJ Redick.  When he goes up for a shot, in his mind, of course he’ll make it; he’s never missed.  It’s not delusion or ego-driven arrogance, it’s more like a child’s belief in the good in himself—in his mind he’s never missed a basket, so he launches the ball with nothing but complete, untainted optimism.  The “Yips” are incomprehensible to him.  It would be like trying to explain the concept of electrical engineering to a gerbil.

My round ball crush, JJ Redick.

Melissa was like that.  She had knowledge, experience and a stack of awesome, no-fail recipes tall enough to reach the top shelf.  Above all she possessed a quiet form of supreme confidence.  Doubt didn’t seem to be in her vocabulary.

But back to the orzo.  This recipe is like a ski lodge in the summer—it’s very accommodating.  You can add anything to this dish; protein, different types of veg, various nuts.

Petey and I love this, but The Kid has not yet had an opportunity to try it.

Melissa’s Lemon Thyme Orzo (by way of Debbie)

lemon thyme orzoIngredients

2 ½ cups chicken or vegetable stock

½ cup white wine

1 tablespoon olive oil

2-3 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup orzo

½ lemon, zested + 2 tablespoons juice

2 tablespoons fresh chopped thyme leaves

2 teaspoons fresh minced rosemary

1 cup frozen peas

1/3 cup shredded Parmesan

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

¼-½ cup crumbled crispy bacon (optional)

Pea shoots

Heat large skillet on medium and add olive oil.  Stir in garlic and rosemary.  When fragrant, add orzo and stir constantly until it’s lightly toasted.  Deglaze with wine.  Add stock, and simmer on medium until most of the liquid has been absorbed, stirring occasionally, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in lemon zest, juice, thyme, peas, and cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste, top with crispy bacon, a handful of pea shoots, and transfer to a serving bowl.  Serves 4.

Variations (Stir these in at the end of cooking, off the heat):

Instead of peas, use asparagus.  Or roasted broccoli and thinly sliced sun-dried tomatoes.

Drop the peas and add snipped Chinese chives and halved grape tomatoes you’ve blistered in a very hot skillet with 1 teaspoon olive oil.

Nix the pea shoots, and stir in 2 cups raw baby spinach.

Mix in salad shrimp or shredded rotisserie chicken.

Stir soft cheese (like brie or mascarpone) into pasta.

I watch what some people might consider way too much food television (but it’s purely for research purposes).  There are cooks that I love, some that are ok, but not my favorites, and a few that when they appear, I rush to change the channel.  Some hosts are very reliable sources for recipes, with many of their dishes recreated in my kitchen; most were big hits; a few, embarrassing flops.

But a Melissa D’Arabian recipe has never resulted in anything but success, yummy food, and kudos from family.  So much so, that at our house we refer to her as “Magic Melissa”.

Yup, that’s me in the kitchen…

I guess we’ll just have to see if she can cast a spell and make The Kid enjoy orzo.

Thanks for your time.

Pucker up

What’s better than lounging around your pool, drinking a thick, creamy, chocolate milkshake?  Or if you’d rather, a daiquiri; you be you.

How about Antonio Banderas holding that glass for you, and bringing the straw to your lips.

You know…I don’t even need the pool, the milkshake, or the boat.

What’s better than lounging around your pool, sipping on a drink held by Antonio Banderas?

Drinking from a glass held by Antonio Banderas while lounging around the pool on your disgustingly opulent yacht.

In that same vein, what’s better than a creamy lemon cheesecake?

full cheesecake

A creamy lemon cheesecake that’s unbelievably, insanely, easy to make, and topped with a lemony blueberry streusel, that’s what.

When I started cooking in earnest, I loved to pick up the little cookbooks in the checkout line in the supermarket.  My favorites are the Pillsbury Cook-Off booklets.  They have the top recipes from all categories.  I purchased my favorite, which I still have and use, in 1994.

Although there are quite a few dishes in it that I still prepare, there’s one recipe in it that I’ve made literally hundreds of times.  It alone was more than worth the price (which back then was all of $2.75).

As always, I played with it, tweaked a few things, and made the recipe my own.  The newest twist is the addition of blueberries.  I love them, but my mom’s really crazy for those navy nuggets.  She is whom I had in mind when I made the change.

It would make a terrific dessert for Easter dinner.  And it travels great, in case you’re doing dinner elsewhere.

Vanilla bean lemon cheesecake with blueberry streusel

lemon blueberry cheesecake


1-18.25 ounce package lemon cake mix

½ cup butter, softened

Zest of 1 lemon


2-8 ounce packages of cream cheese, softened

3 large eggs

1-8 ounce container lemon yogurt

1-16 ounce can lemon frosting

1 vanilla bean


1-2 cups fresh blueberries

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Lightly spray bottom of 9 or 10-inch spring form pan with non-stick cooking spray.  Place a piece of spayed parchment that is about 2 inches larger all the way around over the bottom, then clip the bottom and ring together, letting parchment hang outside. 

Blend cake mix, butter, and zest in large bowl at low speed until crumbly. Reserve 1 cup of crumb mixture for topping. Press remaining mixture into bottom and 1 ½ inches up sides of pan.  Using a metal measuring cup to help form it will get a smooth, even, crust.

Beat cream cheese, eggs, yogurt, frosting, and vanilla bean innards in same bowl at medium speed with whisk attachment until completely smooth. Pour into crust-lined pan. Very gently, one at a time, place the blueberries evenly on top.  Sprinkle reserved crumb mixture evenly over berries and filling.

Bake 1 to 1 ½ hours or until center is set, but slightly jiggly and edges are light golden brown. Cool 30 minutes. Run knife around sides of pan to loosen. Remove sides of pan, then carefully slide the parchment off the pan bottom onto serving plate and trim the excess paper. Refrigerate 2 hours before serving.  Slice with unwaxed dental floss or serrated knife dipped into very hot water.  Sliced thinly—and you really should, this serves 16.


Store leftovers in the fridge.

This makes a delicious lemon cheesecake.  But the only thing limiting the potential flavor is what kind of cake mix, frosting, and yogurt you pick.  You could also combine flavors, like chocolate and coffee, vanilla/pomegranate, or orange/caramel.

Heck, this fall you could go nuts and get your pumpkin spice on.


Or not.

Thanks for your time.

Don’t be that guy

I cook with stock all the time.  I use it for sauces, and gravies; I cook rice and pasta in it.  And almost every single time, it’s from a box, or the grocery store.  I’ve only ever made stock from scratch, once, which I recounted a month or so ago.


There is currently running a commercial for pre-made cartons of stock.  It’s actually a brand that I consider quality, which I’ve used numerous times.  I do though take issue with the message of this ad. In various vignettes, people are insisting they cook because they make “they make the best chicken noodle soup”.  Then they proceed to show them adding some chicken meat, a few veg, and some bagged egg noodles to a bubbling pot of said company’s chicken stock.


These poor, deluded folk are not chicken soup makers.  At best they are “stuff-put-er-inners”.  To produce homemade chicken noodle soup you must start with a chicken, and maybe even make your own noodles.

Anything less is practically opening a can.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I have enjoyed many cans of varieties of chicken noodle (stars, noodle-o’s, curly, spaghetti-shaped) soups.  But I never tried to pass it off as scratch-made.

Now, if you want to make a chicken soup that begins with stock (canned or made in your own kitchen) which you can still claim as your own, I’ve got a recipe for you.

This is a rich, creamy, lemony chowder.  It’s a little bit of a riff on Panera Bread’s creamy chicken and wild rice soup.  It also freezes and reheats well.

Lemon chicken and wild rice chowder

chick chow

8 tablespoons butter divided

1/2 cup flour

3 carrots, peeled and cut into same size pieces

4 stalks celery, leaves and all, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

3/4 cup dried mushrooms, reconstituted and chopped

2 bay leaves

1 teaspoon dry thyme

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Zest of 2 lemons, divided

Juice of 2 lemons

1 cup rice and/or grain mix with wild rice (I like Bob’s Red Mill Brown and Wild Rice)

1 1/2cups frozen shoe peg corn

1 cup white wine

5 cups chicken stock

1 1/2 cups skim milk

1 cup heavy cream

4-5 cups cooked chicken, white and dark, cut or ripped into bite-sized pieces.

Make roux:

Melt 6 tablespoons butter in small skillet.  Whisk in flour and cook over low until light blond in color.


In a large heavy pot, melt 2 tablespoons butter.  Place in pot: Carrots, celery, onion, mushrooms, thyme, bay leaves, half the lemon zest, salt and pepper.  Cook until there is some color on veg, and carrots are starting to soften. 

Stir in rice and/or grain mix and let cook until they start to brown around the edges.

Deglaze the pot with wine.  Cook, stirring often until it’s all cooked in.

Pour in stock and skim milk.  Bring to slow simmer.  Add corn.

When the rice/grain is fully cooked (time varies according to type), bring to a boil and whisk in roux until it’s cream soup thickness. 

Turn down to low.  Pour in lemon juice.  When the juice is thoroughly mixed in, stir in cream and gently add chicken.

Check for seasoning, and keep warm until service.  Garnish each bowl with a sprinkling of lemon zest.

Makes 8-10 servings.


This soup is delicious and quite impressive.  A soup that you can be proud to call your own.  So you don’t need to pretend you did something you really didn’t.

Don’t be that guy.

that guy

Thanks for your time.

Hello Yellow

It’s a bum rap.

Calling a faulty piece of machinery a lemon—it’s wrong and unfair.  It’s just blatant anti-lemon propaganda.

It may not look like much, but don’t you dare call it a lemon.

Lemons are one of the tastiest and most versatile items in any kitchen.

The other day I was waxing rhapsodic about lemons, and said, “Lemons make everything better.”

A miracle can grow on a tree.

And Petey said, “Not if you don’t like ‘em.”

Well first off, I don’t think that person exists.  But, for the sake of argument let’s say that this freak of nature is out there somewhere, leading a lonely, lemon-hating life.

There are unconfirmed reports coming out of North Korea that this man is an unrepentant lemon hater. Figures.

Unbeknownst to him, he probably ingests them all the time.

Many fruit juices add lemon to keep them from becoming cloyingly sweet.  Lots of salad dressings contain a spritz or two.  And all kinds of dishes, especially long cooked ones, are finished by squeezing a bit of lemon juice into them.  Just enough to perk up the flavors, but not enough to taste.

Recently I cobbled together a recipe for sautéed spinach.  Except for creamed spinach, I’ve never liked it cooked, because it seems bitter and slimy.  But I read about a method that’s easier, and less messy.  I had a surfeit of spinach in the fridge, so I decided to experiment.  Besides, The Kid loves sautéed spinach, and I get a kick out of giving my culinary schooled child a little schooling from me.

Popeye called. He wants in.

To my surprised delight, wilting the spinach by microwave gets rid of both bitterness and sliminess.  I loved it.

Sautéed spinach

32 ounces fresh baby spinach (2 large boxes)

*1 tablespoon garlic oil

1 large shallot or 1/2 red onion, diced

¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

Juice of ½ lemon

Kosher salt to taste

Cracked black pepper to taste

*To make garlic oil, peel 2 cloves garlic and bruise by giving them a whack with a spoon.  Place into skillet with olive oil.  Warm until fragrant, then remove cloves with slotted spoon and discard.

Directions for spinach: Place raw spinach into very large bowl, pressing down to get it all in.  Cover with damp paper towel.  Microwave for 2 minutes.  Toss and put back into microwave.  Cook in 2 minute increments until completely wilted.

Put into colander and let it cool enough to handle.

Once cool, squeeze with your hands to get out as much water (and the bitterness it contains) as possible.  Put it on a cutting board and roughly chop.  Return to colander and squeeze it again to get out all the liquid you can.  Let rest in colander until ready to cook—or refrigerate and hold for up to 6 hours.

Heat skillet, add garlic oil.  Add shallots, season, and cook until translucent.  Stir in spinach, and nutmeg.  Season.  Sautee until it’s hot and it seems almost dry.

To preserve color of the spinach, take pan off heat then stir in lemon juice.  Check for seasoning, and serve.  Makes 4-5 servings.

Even though there’s lemon in the spinach, it only brightens the flavor.  So, there you go, mythical lemon hater.

But if you like lemon, there’s all kind of places to put it for a kick of citrus.

Lemon can make a good thing better.

Add it to scrambled eggs—but only after cooking; adding it to raw will curdle them, which is a pretty unappetizing sight at breakfast.  Give soup a hit; I recently added lemon juice to both Panera’s cream of chicken, and a bowl of egg drop soup.  Turned out awesome.  But lemon loves salt, so taste and re-season if needed.

Not just savory, lemon’s heavenly in sweets.

For a quick delicious dessert that will impress and delight your diners, make a granita.

A granita is a frozen non-dairy dessert that when placed in a goblet, looks like a million bucks.

See how pretty?

Just make a pitcher of lemonade and pour it into a baking dish and freeze (add a splash of grenadine for pink lemonade).  Every 15 minutes, take it out and scrape with a fork.  Keep doing this until it’s completely frozen and looks like snow.  Scoop into wine glass, and garnish with a sprig of mint or a twisted strip of lemon peel.

I hope I’ve convinced you to appreciate this sunny, daffodil-colored fruit so much that you, like me, are beseeching life to give you some lemons.

May I some more, please?

Thanks for your time.