Congo Squares don’t immediately scream “CHRISTMAS!” Yet for me, they are a big part of the season, along with rum balls, fudge, cranberry-orange cookies and the fruitcake recipe that has been in my family for at least 7 generations now (mine being the fifth).

I’ve only seen the recipe a couple of other places, but it has been a favorite of my family, and one of the few things my mom enjoyed baking. Here is her recipe:

Congo Squares

2/3 cup shortening (I use butter)

2-1/4 cups brown sugar (not packed)                       

Melt butter and stir in sugar. Cool.
3 eggs

1 cup nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc)

12 oz. chocolate chips

1tsp vanilla                                                                         

Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add nuts, chips and vanilla.
2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2-1/4 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt                                                                           

Combine dry ingredients. Add to creamed mixture, blending well. Pat into greased 9″ x 13″ pan or 2- 8″ x 8″ pans. Bake large pan in 350°f oven for 30 minutes. Bake smaller pans for 25 minutes.

Cool and cut into 1 inch squares. These are gooey and rich, so smaller portions are perfect.

Congo Squares

Whole Wheat Pasta with Sardines

3 pounds Roma tomatoes, blanched, skinned and chopped

Olive oil

1/4 cup yellow onion, finely diced

1 small sweet pepper, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 cup finely chopped fennel fronds

1 Tbslp finely chopped preserved lemon rind

1 tin unsalted sardines (I used Trader Joe’s brand), spines removed and fillets roughly broken into pieces

8 ounces whole wheat pasta

Feta cheese, for garnish

Capers, for garnish
Sauté onion, sweet pepper and garlic on olive oil. Add diced tomatoes and simmer until tomatoes are tender and sauce has thickened slightly. Add fennel and continue to simmer while pasta is cooking.

Cook pasta and drain. Toss pasta with sauce and add the sardine fillets. Garnish with crumbled feta cheese and capers.

Makes four servings.

Blueberry Cheesecake Bars



2 cups flour

1 cup unsalted butter, slightly softened

1/2 cup powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F. Place powdered sugar and flour in bowl of food processor. Cut softened butter into 1 inch pieces and add to bowl. Process until butter is well- mixed and dough is fine and crumbly. Pat into greased 9×13″ pan. Press firmly. Bake for 20 minutes.


1 pound cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1 cup melted white chocolate (or even better, caramelized white chocolate*)

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla extract

Using the same food processor bowl, place cream cheese and sugar in bowl. Process until creamed. Add white chocolate and process again, scraping sides of the bowl a couple of times to get the batter as smooth as possible. Add eggs, then vanilla. Process until smooth.

Remove crust from the oven. Pour batter over the crust and smooth, being sure the batter goes to the edges and corners. Return to the oven and bake for an additional 25 minutes, or until the cheesecake is set in the center.


4 cups of fresh blueberries, separated

1/4 cup orange juice

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 Tbls born starch

1/4 cup water

Place 2 cups of blueberries, juice and sugar in heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally, and cook until the berries burst. Remove from heat. Mix cornstarch and water and add to the berries, returning the mixture to the heat after the cornstarch is stirred in completely. This prevents lumping. Cook another minute or so to thicken the mixture and cook the star chinless out of the cornstarch. Remove from heat, then stir in the remaining 2 cups of berries.

Remove the baked bars from the oven and let cool 10 minutes or so before topping with the berries. Chill completely before cutting and serving.

Makes 12-18 bars, depending on how large or small you cut them.


* I had ordered 5 pounds of dark chocolate last Novemeber, and only realized after I had opened the bag that they were white chocolate pastilles. I don’t like white chocolate, and no one I know likes white chocolate. What to do? What to do? Then one day, as I was making dinner and watching YouTube videos of the Great Australian Bake Off, one of the contestants mentioned caramelized white chocolate. What ho!?

It’s pretty easy to make, although it does require your attention and a warm oven for several hours. I used this process, although I did not bake mine for quite as long as Joe did. What a transformation! It keeps well, so if you are going to go to the trouble, make a bunch of it and keep it on hand for adding to cheesecake, muffins, and so forth.

Wine Cherries!

Eugenia Bone is a genius. Her book, “The Kitchen Ecosystem” has inspired me to look at food differently, particularly when it comes to waste. But that’s another issue. Right now it is cherry season. I’ve already plundered my friend’s sour cherry tree (by her invitation, of course) and made a luscious sour cherry pie and some jam. Now it is on to one of my favorites: wine cherries. Wine cherries should be huge, succulent and sweet. Bing!

I used Eugenia’s recipe from her book “Well-Preserved,” making one small change. I added a dozen juniper berries as well as the cloves. It’s a simple recipe that gives you a versatile ingredient for sweet and savory dishes as well as the perfect cocktail garnish. Maraschino cherries, even if they aren’t the scary, non-food kind, have nothing on these babies when it comes to a Manhattan. Trust me on that one.

Here is the recipe. I made 10 half-pints and had some syrup leftover, which I cooked down until very thick and truly syrupy. It gave me a half-pint of fantasticly flavorful syrup, some of which I will be using shortly on a pork tenderloin with braised Swiss Chard stems – again, thanking Ms. Bone for inspiring me to do something with those colorful stems besides compost them.

WINE CHERRIES, adapted from Eugenia Bone’s “Well-Preserved”

2 bottles of red wine (think Trader Joe’s or BotaBox cheap here)
2 cups sugar
2 cups orange juice
24 whole cloves and 12 juniper berries
Rind, pith removed, from one large orange or 3 tangerines/clementines
4 pounds Bing cherries, pitted

Have 10-12 half-pint jars sterilized and hot. Lids and rings too. You know the drill.

Place all ingredients except the cherries in a large, non-reactive pot. Bring to boil, stirring to prevent burning. Add cherries and simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove the cherries with a slotted spoon and set aside, covered, to keep them warm.

Return the liquid to a boil and reduce by half  – about 15 minutes longer.

Fill hot jars with cherries. Don’t pack tightly, so the cherries keep their shape. Cover, leaving 1″ headspace, with hot syrup. Seal and process in hot water bath for 20 minutes.

As I said, I had some syrup leftover. I removed the orange zest, cloves and juniper berries, and reduced the syrup until it was very thick and syrupy, probably another ten minutes. That stuff is gonna be wicked on this tenderloin. I also had about a dozen cherries left over, which will find their way on some of that Oatscream I made last week.


We All Scream for Oatscream

Oatscream is a dairy-free frozen dessert that I first tried in Minneapolis, at the greatest grocery store ever, The Wedge. I was instantly in love. This week, after pining for a scoop of chocolate Espresso Bean Oatscream, I decided to try my hand at my own. It’s been so long since I had any that I am not sure how close I got, but I must say, this is mighty good!



1-1/2 cups oat flour (you can grind your own from rolled oats if you don’t have oat flour)

3 cups unsweetened vanilla-flavored coconut drink (I used So Delicious)

1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar or preferred sweetener (adjust if using stevia, of course, and be sure to use vegan sugar if you want to be purely vegan about it).

1 tsp vanilla extract

Dash of salt

Flavoring of choice. I used 1 cup of chocolate-covered espresso beans.



Blend the oat flour and the coconut beverage in a blender until smooth. Allow this to sit out for an hour, then give it another blend.

Add the sweetener, vanilla, salt, and the coffee beans, then blend again until everything is well mixed and the coffee beans are ground as fine as you want them.

Refrigerate the mixture for at least four hours, and preferably overnight. This allows the oat flour to absorb the liquid, and thicken nicely. It will be grainy and runny if the starches in the oats aren’t softened.

Pour the mixture into the ice cream maker freezing chamber. You can also add other flavors instead of the coffee beans – fruits, jams, nuts, whatever. Let it churn according to the manufacturer instructions. Mine was Ready after about 25 minutes. Serve it immediately or scrape the Oatscream into a freezer-safe container or a loaf pan lined with wrap.

I topped our scoops (because I just don’t know when to quit) with a vegan chocolate crackle coating, using 5 ounces of dark chocolate and 4 ounces of unrefined coconut oil that were melted and stirred to combine. Couldn’t get easier.

Why vegan ice cream? Why not? It’s really tasty, pretty simple, and you’ve got something really tasty that everyone can eat.


Cookie Party!

It’s our 11th Christmas in NE Tennessee, and our 11th year hosting my nephews and their friends for an afternoon of cookie decorating, followed by pizza, movies, sugar-fueled physical activity and, on occasion, sleep. I am thrilled that The Boys and their friends still enjoy this tradition (but then again, so do the several adults who find themselves here for the event, too).

I am fortunate to have the perfect sugar cookie recipe, thanks to friend – and newly named Director of the Blue Plum Festival – Deanna Hays. I will make 4 or more batches of this recipe over the next few days, will bake them off on Friday, and whip up about 5 pounds of icing to go on them. The icing will be divided, tinted, and put into squeeze bottles (restaurant supply stores sell them for about $1 apiece). The big box of assorted sprinkles will be put out, and the basement kitchen will be filled with kids, adults, sprinkles, music, and laughter.


Sugar Cookies
Makes about 50, depending on the size of the cookie cutters used

2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla (or half vanilla, half almond extract)
1/2 cup milled flax seed
3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder (aluminum free)

Cream butter and sugar in stand mixer. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until fluffy.
In another bowl, combine flour, flax seed and baking powder. Slowly add dry ingredients to creamed mixture and beat at low speed until combined.

Chill dough for several hours.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.
Taking a quarter of the dough at a time so the remainder stays chilled, roll out dough on a lightly floured surface to about 1/4 inch thickness. Cut out shapes with your favorite cookie cutters. Carefully transfer cookies to lightly greased or parchment-lined (my preference) cookie sheets. Bake for about 14 minutes, until edges of dough just start to brown. Let them cool on a wire rack, stack them up, and get ready to decorate!


Icing for Sugar Cookies
Make a lot. I use Wilton gel color tints. They have great, vibrant colors and don’t water down the icing. Also, they are much neater than those little squeeze bottles (argh!)

2-1/2 cups powdered sugar
2 Tbsp buttermilk
1 Tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1 Tbsp light corn syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla
Gel food tint assortment

Combine everything except the tints in the bowl of a mixer. Beat until smooth, adding a few drops of water of buttermilk as needed to make the icing spreadable.

Take a portion of icing out into a smaller bowl and tint to the desired color. Place the tinted icing in a clean, dry squeeze bottle for piping and/or a bowl for spreading.

I end up making 6 or 7 colors because I just don’t know when to quit.


Pumpkin Soup Curries Flavor – I Mean – Favor

I will not lie: I love pumpkin. In bread, in muffins, in ravioli. In stuffing, biscuits and of course, pie. But one of my favorite ways to use pumpkin is in a hearty yet tender soup perfect for these wintry evenings. Curried Pumpkin Soup is not only tasty, it’s quick and simple. Six ingredients and 30 minutes, along with a hunk of lusty crusty bread and a simple salad, gets you a perfect weeknight meal.

Curried Pumpkin Soup
2 tbsp olive oil or coconut oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
Your favorite curry blend, to taste (I use about 2 tbsp of Penzey’s Curry blend)
1/2 cup peanut butter, preferably the all-natural, unsweetened kind
2 cups pumpkin purée
32 ounces chicken broth or vegetable broth

Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the onions and cook over medium heat, fairly gently, until the onions are soft – about 5 minutes. Add the curry powder and peanut butter. Stir for a minute or so to soften the peanut butter and mix the curry powder with the oil and onions.

Gradually add the broth, whisking as you add it, to break up the peanut butter if it is lumpy. Add the pumpkin and whisk until the soup is smooth.
Heat through until piping hot.

Serve with your favorite bread. Garnish the soup with a little chopped parsley and/or a sprinkling of roasted pumpkin seeds.