Pumpkin Crème brûlée

I have always had a "love affair" with crème brûlée. Literally translated to "burnt cream", it is a classic dessert, simply made with egg yolks, heavy cream, sugar, and vanilla beans. This mixture is whisked together, baked until the custard sets, chilled, and then "brûléed" with a little sugar on top (with help from a blowtorch) for an added sugary crust. Nothing beats tapping your spoon on top of the crust to break it, getting that perfect crust-to-custard ratio, and delighting in the burst of flavor and texture as it hits your mouth.

When I was a pastry chef, I strangely fell in love with making crème brûlées. I favored trying to create new and innovative ways of taking the basic flavors of the custard's base and changing things up a bit: some of the most popular brûlée flavors I concocted were Irish coffee, ginger infused with mango puree, and white chocolate with raspberry puree.

But the one that still stands out as my favorite to make is pumpkin crème brûlée. This recipe was handed down to me from the exiting pastry chef, and it was the first one I made at the restaurant I was working for. Due to the fact it was Thanksgiving-time when I started, we were elbow-deep in making hundreds of these crème brûlées for parties and events, as they were one of the most popular items on the dessert menu. 

Being "that time of year" where pumpkin is everywhere, I decided to make them recently for a girl's dinner and then for Thanksgiving, to which rave reviews were handed down again. I had to pass it along.

(note: crème brûlées, though may appear daunting at first, are quite frankly very easy to make)

Recipe (makes about 5-6 regular ramekins and 10-12 small ramekins)


1 1/4 C heavy whipping cream
1/2 fresh vanilla bean, split and beans scraped (or substitute 1 tsp vanilla extract)
5 egg yolks
6 tbsp sugar, plus extra for "brûlée"
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 C solid packed pumpkin (canned version)
2 tbsp orange liqueur (optional)

Preheat oven to 325F.

First things first, add the cream to a small sauce pot; and the vanilla bean pod and beans to the cream; bring to a low boil (small bubbles all around edge of cream in pot) and turn off heat to allow vanilla to "steep" in cream, about 10 minutes.

While vanilla and cream are steeping, mix together egg yolks, sugar, nutmeg, pumpkin, and orange liqueur (optional). Whisk together well to combine.

After 10 minutes of cream and vanilla steeping, bring cream back up to a low boil. Remove from heat, and SLOWLY pour cream into egg-pumpkin mixture, whisking constantly. Make sure to scrape all leftover vanilla beans left in bottom of the pan into the mixture.

Remove vanilla bean pod from the mixture as you do not want to bake with these!

(This step can be made 1-2 days ahead; cover with plastic wrap and store in refrigerator until ready to use)

Next, pour pumpkin batter into ramekins. Place into large baking vessels where the lip of the vessel is higher than the ramekins because they will be baking in a water bath.

Fill the baking vessels with water, enough to almost reach the lip of each ramekin (by "lip" in the above photo, I am referring to the top portion of the ramekin where it is a bit thicker). Place in oven and bake until custard is set, about 20 minutes for regular ramekins and about 15 minutes for small ramekins (make sure to judge for yourself, every oven can be and is different!).

Remove baking vessels from oven, and place ramekins on a cookie sheet; wrap each individually with plastic wrap and store in refrigerator for at least 8 hours, preferably overnight, to allow the custard to set.

When ready to serve, sprinkle some sugar on top of the custard, and using a blow torch, brûlée the sugar on top to a golden brown.

And serve.

Slightly crunchy, sublimely creamy = just what you are looking for in a perfect crème brûlée. The added pumpkin and spices is just the hint of what is needed for this holiday season, and they balance beautifully with the richness from the eggs and cream. 

And, with the now HUNDREDS of these pumpkin crème brûlées I have made over the last decade, the smiles on my guests faces in their sheer delight of this simple yet oh-so-flavorful dessert are indeed priceless.

Penne Pasta with Roasted Acorn Squash, Sweet Italian Sausage, Wilted Arugula and a White Wine Reduction

In the Fall and Winter months, squash is everywhere. And beyond the traditional carving pumpkin, there are some excellent varietals that can be transformed into fantastic soups, sides, gnocchi, and pasta dishes. Some of my favorite are Butternut squash, Acorn squash, and sugar pie pumpkin. Simply quartered, seeded, drizzled with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then roasted until soft, these lovely squash take on a sweet, nutty flavor that is fantastic on its own or added to any dish.

I recently created this simple yet savory pasta dish with leftover Italian sausage and arugula I had in my fridge, and it was delicious. The sweetness of the roasted squash with the sausage was a perfect pairing, and the slight pepper from the arugula was a great addition. The white wine and chicken stock reduction keeps this dish light (and on the healthy side). Enjoy this excellent pasta dish throughout the cold Winter months!

Recipe: (makes 3 large or 4 medium servings)

1 acorn squash (or small butternut squash), quartered and seeds removed
olive oil          
4 links sweet/mild Italian sausage, casings removed
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
¼ cup of white wine
2 cups chicken stock
1 bag (6-7oz) spinach or arugula
3 cups penne pasta
2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped for garnish
grated Parmesan for garnish
sea salt & cracked pepper
toasted pumpkin seeds (or pepitas) for garnish

Preheat oven to 375F; place quartered acorn squash on foil lined baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place in oven and roast 35 – 45 minutes or until fork tender, remove from oven and allow to cool. When cool remove skin from squash and cut into 1/2 inch cubes.
In a large pot bring water to boil and add penne pasta, cook to al dente.  In a sauté pan over medium high heat, add 2 tbsp olive oil, and add sausage to sauté pan using a spatula break up sausage into smaller pieces while browning. Sauté for 10 – 12 minutes or until sausage is cooked through. Remove sausage from pan onto paper towel lined plate.
Over medium heat in the same sauté pan add onion; sweat onions until soft about 7 minutes, add garlic and stir. Add white wine and scrape up brown bits while reducing down until almost dry. Add chicken stock and reduce by 2/3. Add squash to pan and remove from heat.
Drain penne pasta into a large bowl and add spinach; stir to wilt completely, add squash mixture, and sausage to bowl and gently stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
Plate pasta and garnish with parsley, Parmesan, and toasted pumpkin seeds.  

The Very Best Herb and Lemon Roasted Chicken

I absolutely love cooking with herbs, and with the abundance I have growing on my deck I find myself using them all of the time - chives and parsley to garnish a green bean salad, rosemary and thyme with a little lemon for a compound butter, or throwing a bunch in a sachet to season the water in a pot of simmering fingerling potatoes.

But, tried and true, my favorite use for all of them at the same time is...chicken. This bird just takes on the flavors of any herbs so well that I usually end up slicing up some lemon, chopping some rosemary or basil, and stuff it right under its skin, pop it in the oven to roast up crisp, and serve simply with a green salad and crusty bread. May not sound the most exciting, but simple can be (and 99% of the time is) the most delicious and satisfying.

Looking for some new inspiration, I have been reading and re-reading some of my favorite "go-to" food magazines, cookbooks, and blogs lately, and came across a recipe from Tyler Florence for herb-infused-oil-marinated chicken breasts that sounded so lovely and easy I had to give it a try. Besides, marinating in the herb oil would impart more flavor than just stuffing herbs under its skin, and I had PLENTY of herbs at my disposal.

And, as it turned out, this ended up as one of the top herb roasted chicken dishes I have ever had or created. Juicy, herbaceous, and down right delicious. I obviously had to share.


1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon, peeled in big strips
4 garlic cloves, smashed
4 fresh thyme sprigs
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon
1 lemon, sliced in paper-thin circles
2 bone-in chicken breasts, skin on
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Just had to add, as this recipe calls for "smashed" garlic, you don't need to spend wasted time mincing it all up. Grab a clove, use the back of your knife, and pound down on the clove just to break it up a bit.

First things first, get the herb-infused oil going. In a sauce pot, combine the extra virgin olive oil, lemon peel, garlic, rosemary sprigs, thyme sprigs, and bay leaves.

Use a vegetable peeler to remove the skins of the lemon in strips.

Over very low heat, bring the oil mixture to a simmer, as to not "cook" or "burn" the herbs and aromatics. This technique is a lot like steeping tea.


When the oil starts to simmer or start to slightly bubble, turn off heat and allow to cool completely. I prefer to pour into another bowl, herbs and all, and place in the fridge for about 45 minutes to an hour.

While the oil is cooling, slice the lemon into "paper thin" slices.

Now we have our stuffing ingredients ready! Chives, tarragon, parsley, and lemons.

Begin to stuff the birds with the above herbs and lemons: using your index finger, carefully separate the skin from the breast meat, slowly moving your finger all under the skin to create a cavity to hold the herbs and lemon.

Next up, (I like using a spoon) mix up the chives, tarragon, and parsley and "stuff" under skin in the "cavity", making sure to spread around as much as possible. Shove about 2-3 lemon slices under the skin as well over the herbs.

The herbs smelled sooooo good.

Place all of the chicken breasts in resealable bags and dump in any unused chopped chives, tarragon, and parsley. Pour chilled herb-oil over chicken, seal bag, and place in refrigerator for AT LEAST 8 hours, but preferably overnight. Best to let these chicken breasts take full advantage of their "herb bath" to infuse as much flavor as possible!

24 hours later (in my case), the chicken breasts are ready for some browning and roasting time. Season generously with sea salt and cracked black pepper.

Preheat oven to 375*F. Heat up a saute pan over medium high heat with a little olive oil. Sear breasts, skin side down, for about 7 minutes, crisping up the skin and browning slightly. Remove from pan and place on foil lined cookie sheet. Repeat with all chicken breasts.

Roast chicken breasts for 35-40 minutes or until a meat thermometer reads at least 160*F. Remove cookie sheet from oven and "tent" chicken with foil for about 10 minutes to allow the juices to rest - the chicken will continue to cook slightly.

And serve.

In this evening's case, I served the chicken with some sautéed French green beans with goat cheese and caramelized onions and corn soufflé. The chicken was so moist and extra flavorful from the herb oil plus the extra herbs under the skin, plus the skin was super crispy from both browning and roasting. Though the herb oil is an extra step, it is totally worth it in the end. This is a great year round chicken recipe that would also be fantastic with a whole bird on a rotisserie or simply cooked on a BBQ. Thanks to Tyler Florence for the inspiration for another tried and true classic recipe for my repertoire.

The Infamous Crispy Shiitake Mushrooms

Ironically, some of the best inventions are created from the worst mistakes. In any industry this is true, but this is often NOT the case in the culinary world, where the words "burned", "charred", "overcooked", and "way too well done" seem to plague any chef trying to make something good out of something that went terribly bad.

Or, in one fantastic case, I gained the opportunity to create sometime sublimely delicious out of what could have been one of the biggest catering "mistakes" of my career. All involving one of my favorite ingredients: the shiitake mushroom.

With lack of stove top space left in the tight-spaced kitchen and pounds of mushrooms to sauté for service as a garnish for filet mignon, I figured I had to "improvize". Knowing my ovens weren't being used at the moment, I decided to toss all of the mushrooms with olive oil, salt and pepper, get them onto sheet pans, throw them in a 400*F oven, and "sauté", or "roast" them until they began to slightly caramelize.

But, being sidetracked with other catering issues (and forgetting to set my timer), I absentmindedly forgot about checking on the 10 pounds of mushrooms now wasting away in the oven's inferno. About 30 minutes after succumbing my funghi to the perils of the oven, I thought I was doomed. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, opened the oven doors.

Instead of finding ashen remnants of what "were" mushrooms, I found shrunken, perfectly browned and slightly crisp slivers of shiitakes. I took the sheet pans out, drained the mushrooms on paper towels (which allowed them to cool and crisp up even more), took a bite, and this deep, earthy, and salty flavor flooded my taste buds. This was something unlike anything I had ever tasted before, and with each sampling, these mushrooms were becoming slightly addicting.

My clients and their guests raved about the meal, but most importantly they all wanted to know, "what were those crunchy, yummy things on top of the filet?" With conviction that it was my "plan" all along to make these shiitakes, I told the guests what they were and explained how I made them, to which my client asked if I could leave all of the leftover shiitakes behind as she wanted to use them as a salad topping the next day.

And, with a diverted mistake, my famous crispy shiitakes were created.

Garnish a salad, soup, meat, pasta dish, or simply enjoy these crunchy little devils on their own. I promise, if you are a mushroom fan, you too will become slightly addicted. 


  • fresh shiitake mushrooms, stemmed, and thinly sliced (see below)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • sea salt

Preheat oven to 350*F. Stem and slice the shiitake mushrooms.

The thinner you slice the mushrooms, the quicker and more evenly they will cook and the crispier they will turn out. I slice mine about 1/4" thick.

Toss shiitakes on cookie sheet and coat heavily with olive oil. 

Here's the trick: you want to use more olive oil than you think. The mushrooms will soak up the oil at this stage, but they will release it during the cooking process. If you don't have enough oil on the mushrooms, they will dry out and burn, so make sure to add enough olive oil. Heavily season with salt.

Pop the sheet pan in the oven, and wait about 20-30 minutes (may be longer or shorter depending on how much you are cooking), and watch the shiitakes shrink, brown, and crisp (see in this picture how the olive oil is released).


Drain on paper towels and allow to cool, unless you can't contain yourself, like me, and start snacking on them immediately.

Earthy, crunchy, salty, yummy. These shiitakes are so versatile and always good to have on hand. Store in a plastic bag or container with a paper towel (to soak up any moisture) - these mushrooms will last up to a week stored in fridge or room temperature. If they get a little soggy, just throw back on a cookie sheet and pop in oven to crisp up.

Cheers and enjoy.

Butternut Squash Gnocchi with Fried Sage and Browned Butter

Fall is finally upon us, a grouping of a couple of months that keep my mind day dreaming about simple yet comforting foods, using all ingredients that September, October, and November have to offer. I love to see all of the pumpkins showing up at markets, reminding me vividly of the corner Pumpkin Patch my Mom used to take us as kids to pick out - my sister being obsessed with carving, I being obsessed with toasting the pumpkin seeds with salt and devouring each and every crunchy, nutty morsel.

Call it a hunch I would be involved in the culinary field one day...

But, thinking about the squash/gourd family of vegetables, one of my all-star ingredients to work with in the Fall is butternut squash. It's nutty yet naturally sweet flavor lends itself beautifully to soups, casseroles, pasta dishes, even roasted on its own with some herbs and olive oil - yet, in my favorite case, it is a welcome addition to homemade potato gnocchi.

I adore these soft, Italian "pasta" dumplings that literally melt in your mouth when cooked perfectly. Fellow Foodie and I recently saw a recipe that Lidia Bastianich wrote for Bon Appetit and had to take a stab at it - however, we have changed it up a bit.

Homemade gnocchi can be and usually is a little labor intensive (as you will see by the steps/photos below), but the work is absolutely worth every fantastic flavorful bite in the end. Especially when quickly sauteed in a little browned butter and garnished with some crispy fried sage leaves.

Time to devour.


1 1-pound butternut squash, halved, seeds scooped out, and then quartered
olive oil
2 medium sized russet potatoes, peeled and cut in half
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for plating
1 large egg, beaten to blend
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 3/4 cups (or more) all purpose flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
a huge handful of fresh sage leaves
Sea salt and cracked black pepper

Special items: either a potato ricer or a colander

First things first: preheat the oven to 400*F; place the quartered pieces of squash on a cookie sheet and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with a little sea salt and cracked pepper.

Roast in oven for about 30-40 minutes or until the squash gets browned in spots and is extremely fork tender.

Allow squash to cool slightly, then scoop flesh into a food processor to puree until smooth.

The next step is key to producing a great gnocchi: cooking the liquid out of the butternut squash puree. Easiest way to do this (outside of using cheesecloth) is to cook the puree down to a thick paste, allowing the water to evaporate from the puree. So, add the squash puree to a small sauce pan and cook over medium high heat until mixture begins to thicken, about 5-10 minutes, stirring constantly.

Remove from pan and allow to cool completely (can be made at least a day ahead). 

Next up, the main ingredient for proper gnocchi: the potatoes.

Peel and halve the potatoes and add them to a sauce pot filled with cold water and a lot of sea salt. Bring to a boil and cook potatoes until fork tender. Drain completely and make sure the potatoes are very dry.

Next, if you have a potato ricer, use it. If you don't (or "insert here": "I don't know what a potato ricer is...") don't worry. If you have a colander, which I hope you do, you are in luck. A potato ricer is a kitchen gadget that generally looks like an oversized garlic press, only it is used to "crush" the potatoes through small holes and make them lighter and airier. But, as I said, if you don't have one, use a colander. As I don't own one either, I first mashed the potatoes.

Then, using a spatula, I ran the mashed potatoes against the small holes of a colander, creating the same end product a potato ricer would (oh, the ingenuity using other gadgets in the kitchen...).

Yes, folks, this is what the potatoes should look like, colander or ricer...

Next up, add 1 C of the butternut squash puree to the potatoes, parmesan cheese, nutmeg, egg, and salt and pepper. Mix together well.

Sift the flour before adding to the squash/potato mixture. Start with 1 3/4C. The dough will be tacky, and you can add up to 1/4C more if you feel you need to. Allow the "dough" to sit for about 30 minutes. In the meantime, pour yourself a glass of wine...(I'm just saying...)

After letting the dough rest (and finishing your glass of wine...), portion the dough out into small balls and, on a lightly floured surface, begin rolling out into long strands, about 3/4" thick.

Cut the strands into 3/4" - 1" long pieces. 

And then, begin the "gnocchi" making process.

Take each little gnocchi "pillow", and, using the back of a fork, gently roll the dough down the fork, gently pressing against the tines to create the dimpled lines in the dough.

All of this can be done at least 24 hours ahead of time.

When ready, bring heavily salted water to a boil and pop in your gnocchi. They will take about 13-15 minutes to cook.

Drain the gnocchi and start on the fried sage leaves. Heat a large skillet with a giant knob of butter, toss in a bunch of fresh sage leaves, and cook over medium heat until sage starts to crisp.

Remove from pan and drain on paper towels.

And, to the same pan, add a little bit more butter, allow to "brown" a bit, and then toss int he drained gnocchi to saute.

A quick flip...


And plate.

Butternut squash gnocchi with fried sage leaves and browned butter.

I cannot explain how heavenly this dish was. Worth every moment of effort. The sweetness of the squash balanced perfectly with the potatoes, and the hint of nutmeg added the right level of depth. And, obviously the browned butter with the fried sage leaves only made the dish that much more jaw-dropping-delicious. 

Sauteeing these lovely gnocchi gave them a lovely, light crust. When you bite into them, literally, it is like, once again, heaven. Kinda like being transported to northern Italy, with a brisk chill in the air, sitting down to a warming plate of these pillows of deliciousness.

Cheers and enjoy.