Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Recipe-in-a-Flash: Chocolate-Hazelnut-Banana Bread

Chocolate + bananas + nuts are always a good combination. When that chocolate-nut pairing is Nutella, well, you've just ramped up the whole banana bread game!

Just look at all that swirly Nutella goodness!

just out of the oven

This recipe, from NYT/Cooking, is easy and delicious. My one change would be to add MORE Nutella (no such thing as too much Nutella, right?). I didn't feel the hazelnut flavor was big enough. I might also add some actual nuts for crunch and texture. 

With those additions, this recipe is a keeper! Add it to your banana bread file and let me know what you think. Happy baking!

Print here!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Rye-Cranberry-Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Greetings, Dear Cook's Tour Readers.

Are you tired of the same old chocolate chip cookie? Do you want something with a little more texture? Would you like a cookie bursting with not-your-typical flavors? How about one that's also super easy to prep and bake? Well, if you answered "yes!" to at least one of these questions (and I'm pretty sure you did), step right up, 'cause I've got just the thing.

By way of one of my favorite bakers, Dorie Greenspan, who adapted it from Mokonuts bakery in Paris, comes this incredible cookie. These are not delicate cookies, by any means. These have a nice heft to them, and they are made with rye flour which gives them a nutty flavor and texture. They also use chocolate chunks instead of chips, which amps of the chocolate-y-ness. The cranberries give you a bit of tartness, which makes these not too sweet, and the sprinkle of sea salt atop each cookie just enhances all the flavors.

You do need to let the dough refrigerate overnight so plan ahead. They keep well at room temp for about three days, and freeze well up to 2 months (I've got a few in my freezer right now). They are perfect for a lunchbox or fall picnic basket, or nibbling with a cup of tea on a crisp fall afternoon.

Print recipe here!

Friday, September 21, 2018

“Can one person make a drop of difference to a huge problem?” Yes!

Dear Cook's Tour Readers,

A few weeks ago, you read about my incredible trip to Tanzania. Besides the amazing up-close interactions with wildlife, and the expansive, gorgeous views of the East African landscape, I told you about our visit to Safe Water Ceramics of East Africa (SWCEA) where they are working to bring clean drinking water to the local population.
Local women gathering water from a pond

In Tanzania, the fourth most populated country in sub-Saharan Africa, half the people (27 million) don’t have access to safe water.  In many cases, women and children collect water where animals drink, urinate and defecate.  

Only 34% have access to decent sanitation, something we take for granted.

Boiling, which uses expensive fuel, can increase fluoride to potentially harmful levels, and most Tanzanian families use no water treatment method at all. 

Left, dirty water from a pond; right, after filtering

But there is a solution and you can help. SWCEA has developed an easy, inexpensive water filtration method and The Cook's Tour has partnered with them and Safe Water Now (certified non-profit) to raise awareness.

I'm asking you to join me in helping to combat this problem. 
Designed and created in Tanzania, one $40 filter can supply a family of six with safe water for five years

Please consider donating to this effort because everyone deserves clean drinking water. Any amount is appreciated. And if you can't donate, please share this blog post and/or the link below to our GoFundMe page.

Thank you.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Serengeti Sunrise

Serengeti Sunrise
You’ve heard the expression “the trip of a lifetime?” It’s used by countless travel magazines, tour companies, and the like to describe a trip so amazing that nothing else could ever top it, or so extravagant you’d need to save up your entire life to be able to afford it. 

I’m not given to hyperbole, but I must tell you about our recent trip to Tanzania that was, in fact, “the trip of a lifetime.”

We’ve done a bit of traveling, especially in the last few years, and all of our trips have been fabulous (Alaska, Sicily, Croatia, the Panama Canal, to name a few) but nothing compares to this Africa trip. What makes a trip so special that it qualifies for entry into that “trip of a lifetime” category? When each day is better than the last; when your interactions with the local population are more than just a quick itinerary “check the box;” when being within 10 feet of a family of elephants and seeing their beauty up close brings you to tears, that makes it a trip of a lifetime.

We spent two weeks in June visiting Tanzania as part of the Overseas Adventure Travel “Safari Serengeti: Tanzania Lodge and Tented Safari” trip, and there is no way I could possibly tell you about ALL of the wonderful experiences in a single blog post but here are the some of the highlights.

After an overnight flight to Amsterdam, and then another eight hour flight to Tanzania, we landed in Arusha, the bustling capital city of 1.5 million people. We landed about 8pm and were met at the airport by our outstanding trip leader, Domi. After going through immigration, and getting our luggage, we had about an hour’s ride to the hotel. Needless to say, we were dead tired!
SWCEA water filter

Our first stop the next day was Safe Water Ceramics of East Africa (SWCEA) to learn about their efforts to provide people with access to clean water. Forty-six percent of Africans suffer from drinking unsafe water. SWCEA produces ceramic water filters to distribute throughout Tanzania (you can read more about the production of the filters here). Through donations (each filter costs only $40) from visitors such as our group, these filters can supply a family of six with clean drinking water for five years. Our little group of 14 travelers purchased five filters that we would distribute during our journey through Tanzania. The next day, enroute to Tarangire National Park, our guide spotted a group of Maasai women and children with their herd of cattle, donkeys, and goats, gathering water from a pond. Our trip leader and drivers slowly and patiently educated Wife #1 and the other Maasai women of a nearby village about how these filters could help them. After a bit of time, they were very happy to accept the filter. One of the many moments of this encounter that was inspiring was the request from Wife #1 for a filter for Wife #2, who was not present. She wasn’t thinking only about herself, but the entire tribe.
Maasai women learning about water filters

We did this a few more times during the trip until all of our filters had been distributed and it was incredibly moving to think that our little donation of $40 could literally change and improve lives. I encourage you to visit the SWCEA site and perhaps make a donation if you are able. In 2018, it is shocking that so many people are without access to clean drinking water.

We spent four days in a tented camp in Serengeti National Park. I was a little apprehensive about the whole “camping” thing (I am not a camping sort of girl), but although rustic, these are definitely not your typical tents. With almost all of the comforts of home (flush toilet, gravity-bucket shower) and wonderful food and service from the camp staff, this is camping I could get used to! The one thing I don’t think I could get used to are the sounds of various wild animals padding around outside our tents during the night. The staff assured us that the animals weren’t interested in us, but it’s hard to fall asleep when you hear wildebeest and hyenas right outside your door!

Every day in the Serengeti, we were up and out early to see the incredible wildlife that was all around us. One day, we left camp in the dark, (very) early hours to catch the sunrise over a gorgeous lake populated with pink flamingos. It was breathtaking. Then our guides drove the group to a mountaintop where they laid out a lovely picnic breakfast. Not exactly roughing it…

We were lucky to catch part of the Great Migration with sightings of thousands of zebras and wildebeest making the annual journey.  In total, there can be two million animals crossing the plains between Tanzania and Kenya. Of course, no one can predict exactly when the animals will traverse this route, but generally your best chances are between June and August.

Most people plan a trip like this to see the animals and we certainly were not disappointed in the efforts of our guides to fulfill this wish. During our two weeks, we saw every “big five” animal (elephant, black rhino, cape buffalo, lion, leopard) that Africa is known for. Along the way, we came across immensely beautiful birds, hippos lazing about watering holes, hyenas stalking flamingos, pelicans, jackals, two (TWO!) pairs of mating lions, baboons, a dik dik (a small dog-size type of deer), vultures, and of course, the ever graceful giraffes.

But this trip was not just about the animals. Midway through the trip, we had the opportunity to visit Oldupai Gorge, where the famed anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, discovered fossil fragments which led them to a new understanding of human evolution. It was incredible to visit the museum and learn about the theory that Oldupai Gorge was home to Homo habilis, a race of early humans that would become the ancestors to all present-day humankind.

One of our last stops was the Ngorongoro Crater, where after driving through the fog-laden roads, we descended to the floor of the crater. This “caldera,” which was formed by a major eruption leading to the collapse of the mouth of a volcano, is more than 12 miles across, with walls that rise 2,000 feet. The crater’s rim is 7,500 feet above sea level, and according to our guide, the permanent supply of water and a precise balance of predator and prey, enables most of the wildlife to remain in the crater year-round. This is where we spotted our only glimpse of a black mama rhino and her baby.

I reflected on a few things when we returned home: a) I am lucky to live in a country where we take everyday things like clean water for granted; b) the sheer beauty and vast expanses of the Serengeti are something I will never forget; and c) the “it takes a village” attitude of every local person we met. Our guide explained that they are all one family and they help each other. 

So the travel pundits were right: definitely the trip of a lifetime.

Sunset in the Serengeti

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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

New Jersey State BBQ Competition - A Judge's Perspective

Kids' Que "Jersey Burger" 
You may not think BBQ is a big thing here in the Garden State, but let me assure you it is and getting bigger all the time.

New Jersey has been crowning BBQ champs at this state event since 1999, and recently I had the pleasure of participating as a judge at this year’s competition, which took place July 14-15 in North Wildwood. The NJ State Barbecue Championship benefits the Anglesea Volunteer Fire Company, which has served the community since 1897.

Besides BBQ, the three-day event, spread out across several streets near the beach, also features cooking demos, vendors offering all sorts of goodies, and fabulous live music all weekend as part of the Anglesea Blues Festival.

The NJ State BBQ Competition is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), and BBQ teams compete not only for the glory but for $10,000 in cash and prizes. In addition, the NJ grand champion is automatically entered to compete in the World Food Championships, which takes place in November in Alabama, where the total prize purse is $300,000! So this is kind of a big deal.

Now you may be wondering “how hard could it be to judge BBQ?” And I’m here to tell you “it’s a tough job, but…” you know how the rest of that saying goes. To give you a peek into what it’s like to be a BBQ judge, follow along. 

For premiere events such as this one, certified KCBS judges apply six months in advance for a coveted spot. This year, all the slots were filled the first day registration opened! Most BBQ competitions are two day events. We start the day with a mandatory judge’s meeting where the rules are reviewed. Judges are then seated six to a table (this competition had approximately 60 total judges, but only 54 for the first day), and after some casual introductions and catching up with judges we’ve met at previous events, we get ready to eat! 

The first day’s entries at the NJ event included an “Iron Chef” competition where the teams had to cook (using only their grills and/or smokers) a dish using a mystery ingredient that would only be revealed the night before at the cook team meeting. This year, the secret ingredient was ground bison. My table had eight samples, which included everything from bison empanadas, bison meat loaf, bison meatball sandwiches, to bison wontons. 

Next, we judged BBQ sauces, and finally desserts. Desserts are where the BBQ teams can really get creative. Every judges table gets different entries, but a couple of the things our table enjoyed were key lime mousse, and a peanut butter cheesecake. The most unusual and creative dessert we received arrived in a mini-grill. Inside the grill, the team had made devil’s food chocolate cakes resembling charcoal briquettes and included eight slices of thick-slab candied bacon along with it. It was outstanding! Remember, the teams had to create these desserts using only a grill or smoker!

After we waddled away from the table, our next assignment was to judge the “Kids Que,” where kids from age 7-14 grilled burgers, pork, tacos, or dessert. One of the entries we sampled was a Jersey Burger - complete with Taylor ham and fried egg, sandwiched between a glazed donut. These kids were amazingly poised and accomplished and I’m sure we’ll see them competing in the adult competition someday.

And all that was just day one! Suffice it to say, I didn’t eat dinner that night.
Grand Champion
Day two brought the official KCBS entries (chicken, pork, ribs, brisket). Luckily, there were more judges this day so we only had six entries for each category (from 64 cook teams). KCBS judges evaluate the submissions for appearance, taste, and tenderness, on a range from 2 (inedible) to 9 (excellent). Judges take a few bites from each entry to gauge where the ribs, brisket, etc., fall on the KCBS criteria. In-between, we cleanse our palate with plain crackers and water. Rolls of paper towels and unscented wet wipes are strewn around the table. During the judging, the tent grows quiet as judges concentrate on which entries make the cut. Judges don’t evaluate one entry against another - each entry is judged on it’s own. After the judges’ score sheets are turned in, official KCBS reps tally up the numbers via a computer program and the winners are announced.
Reserve Champion
The grand champion of this year’s event was  New Jersey’s own “Uncle Pig’s BBQ Pit” from Gibbstown; the reserve champion was “Piggin’ Whiskey,” from Flourtown, PA.

Cook teams come from all over the country to compete and New Jersey was well represented:

Packanack BBQ Club (Packanack Lake)
Hot Rod’s BBQ (Wharton)
Minuteman Smokehouse (Morristown)
Ribbed Off BBQ (Pittsgrove)
Sir-Porks-Alot-BBQ (Paulsboro)
Boy-BQ (Hillsborough)
Local Smoke BBQ Team (Cookstown, Neptune City, Red Bank)
Uncle Pig’s BBQ Pit (Gibbstown)

The BBQ community is fun, warm, and welcoming. If you’re interested in becoming a KCBS certified judge, visit the KCBS page for more information. Or if you simply want to enjoy the sights, sounds, and flavors of New Jersey’s premiere BBQ and music event, put it on your calendar for next July.

It was a beautiful weekend in the Wildwoods - the sun was shining, ocean breezes cooled the crowd, blues music blared from the stage, and the scent of BBQ wafted through the streets. Sounds like a perfect Jersey shore summer weekend to me.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Blueberry Crumb Cake

We just returned from an incredibly inspiring trip to Tanzania, which I will write about soon. In the meantime, please enjoy this delicious, perfect summer dessert. 

You may know that I am a HUGE lover of all things coffee-cake-y and streusel-y. Throw in some plump, sweet blueberries and I’m a happy girl. Make this for your next gathering or just as a treat for yourself. It couldn’t be easier to throw together and it keeps well.

Happy Summer Baking!

Blueberry Crumb Cake (Ina Garten)



1/4 C granulated sugar
1/3 C light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 t ground cinnamon
1/8 t ground nutmeg
1/4 lb (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1-1/3 C all-purpose flour


6 TB unsalted butter, room temp (3/4 stick)
3/4 C granulated sugar
2 extra-large eggs, room temp
1 t pure vanilla extract
1/2 t grated lemon zest
2/3 C sour cream
1-1/4 C all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1/4 t baking soda
1/2 t kosher salt
1 C fresh blueberries
Confectioners’ sugar for sprinkling



Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 9” round baking pan.


Combine granulated sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a bowl. Stir in melted butter and then the flour. Mix well and set aside.


Cream butter and sugar in bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment on high speed for 4-5 minutes, until light. Reduce the speed to low and add eggs 1 at a time, then add vanilla, lemon zest, and sour cream. In separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture to the batter until just combined. Fold in blueberries and stir with a spatula to be sure the batter is completely mixed.

Spoon batter into prepared pan and spread it out with a knife. With your fingers, crumble the topping evenly over the batter. Bake for 40-50 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Cool completely and serve sprinkled with Confectioners’ sugar.

Print here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

'Till We Eat Again - Charleston Edition - Part II

Greetings, dear readers! Hope this finds you well.

A few weeks ago on the CT, I wrote about a lovely springtime salad that you should definitely make. BTW: I think we have turned the corner here in NJ re the weather & it really is Spring - yeah!

And the time before that, we talked about a luscious Apple Buttermilk Loaf Cake (have you made that yet?).
Ft Sumter flag raising

Now it’s time to get back to Charleston (figuratively speaking). On our last full day in CHS, we hopped a ferry to visit Ft Sumter (about 30 minutes from downtown CHS). On the way there, playful dolphins accompanied the boat while a guide gave us an overview of what we could expect at the fort. There was a crisp breeze but the sun was shining brightly as we did a self-guided tour around the grounds. Lucky for us, being the first boat of the day to land at the fort, we watched as the National Park rangers raised our nation’s flag for the day. Ft Sumter is definitely worth a visit.
Ribs at Rodney Scott's BBQ

Remember in my earlier post, I bemoaned the fact we were shut out of ribs at Rodney Scott’s BBQ on our first day? Well, this was our last best hope to get those ribs & we were determined to get them! So after disembarking the Ft Sumter ferry, we Uber’d over to Rodney’s & got on line (yes, there was a line at 11:30am!). WOW! Must say, BEST RIBS EVER! We try BBQ everywhere (we’re certified KCBS BBQ judges so it’s kind of our job) and these were killer! These ribs were big and smoky and juicy and succulent! Believe me, there were no leftovers at our table. When Rodney stopped by to see how everything was, we tried to convince him to PLEASE come to New Jersey (no dice). Rodney Scott’s BBQ is a must if you love BBQ & are in Charleston (or you could plan a trip just for these - they are worth a drive or a flight!).
McLeod Plantation owner's home

After polishing off those ribs, we took in our last historic site, McLeod Plantation. Established in 1851, it is one of the most authentic views into the lives of slaves who lived and worked there for decades, enriching the plantation owners by growing and harvesting sea island cotton under deplorable conditions. It was an enlightening and sobering visit, lightyears away from the sanitized tour we took at Magnolia Plantation earlier in the week.
View of live oaks and slave quarters at McLeod Plantation

Ricotta Gnocchi at FIG
For our last two dinners in Charleston, we had reservations at FIG (Food is Good) and The Ordinary, both owned by celebrated chef, Mike Lata. After reading for years about these restaurants, I was really looking forward to superb meals. At FIG, the standout dish recommended by every notable food critic is the ricotta gnocchi. I’m spoiled because here in NJ, there is no finer ricotta gnocchi than that served by Ryan DePersio at Fascino in Montclair, so FIG had big shoes to fill going in. And I must say that FIG’s gnocchi came very, very close. These small, puffy pillows of delicate ricotta surrounded by an Ossabaw bolognese were heavenly.
Fabulous whiskey sour at Felix
Before dinner at The Ordinary, we stopped next door at Felix, a terrific cocktail lounge, that reminded me of a chic bar you might find somewhere in Paris. We sat at the bar and sipped expertly made cocktails until our dinner reservation time approached. We loved the atmosphere and service at Felix so that we wished we had stayed there for dinner! Next time!
The view from the upstairs dining room at The Ordinary
Jumbo Lump Blue Crab Toast - The Ordinary

The Ordinary is Lata’s casual seafood restaurant and oyster bar. Set in a former bank building, it’s a cavernous, loud setting. We sat upstairs where we had a birds-eye view of the action downstairs. The first things on the menu that caught my eye were the Hawaiian rolls with sea salt butter (natch!) and the sea salt potato chips - both excellent! My friend, A, enjoyed the Jumbo Lump Blue Crab Toast with Lime and English Peas - a beautiful presentation. My entree, Grilled New Orleans Style BBQ White Shrimp was good, but did not live up to The Ordinary’s hype. But the restaurant redeemed itself with my dessert — a perfectly luscious Coconut Cream Pie that made me practically lick the dish!
Coconut Cream Pie at The Ordinary

Our four days in Charleston were a really nice break from winter in the northeast, combined with a chance to visit with friends that we don’t see very often. The city has alot going on, and is growing at a rapid rate, but if you’ve never been and have an affinity for innovative food, traditional low country dishes, American history, and graceful Southern hospitality, make a plan to visit Charleston soon.