Marci’s Brunch: Decadent Baked French Toast and Savory Frittata

Baked Challah French Toast with Praline Topping

Every year at this time Marci, my baby sister, gets together with her high school friends for a gift exchange. As a newlywed who received just about every gift on the planet (let’s just say I’ve often wanted to go shopping in my parent’s basement where most of the gifts are stored), Marci decided she wanted to host the gift exchange for the first time and finally get to use some of her new pieces. Seeing as she was late offering, she used me to cinch the deal: Jackie will cook for us…

That did it, I was booked (albeit this gig didn’t pay, but I didn’t mind – I consider these girls my friends as well). I chose to go with a brunch theme knowing I could give them a wide range of sumptuous foods that my sister would be able to finish cooking/reheat. I had tickets to the Bears game and couldn’t be there myself (FYI: photos courtesy of baby sister).

The girls (minus Marci)

The menu: Baked Challah French Toast with Praline Topping and Strawberry Syrup; Fontina Cheese Frittata with Leeks, Mushrooms and Spinach; and an Orange & Fennel Salad Over Mixed Greens. I got Marci to make banana bread, and told her to save me a piece, and she asked her friends to bring fruit for dessert.

Fennel & Orange Salad Over Mixed Greens Frittata

They loved it! Marci managed to squirrel away a piece of the French toast for me but had no such luck with the frittata, reporting that even her pickiest friend went back for seconds. And the dishes were so simple for her to finish that didn’t even get one emergency phone call, although I think that had to do with the detailed, two-page instructions I gave her to follow.

The frittata recipe came from Bon Appetit although I exchanged half a bag (about 4 oz) spinach for the asparagus. Also, I recommend using high-quality (read: pricey) fontina cheese. Follow the directions as written except add the spinach four or five minutes after adding the mushrooms. I chose to make the frittata in a cast iron skillet for both practical and aesthetic reasons: it can be used on the stovetop and in the oven, and it makes for a rustic and appealing serving piece.

All week I’d been debating whether or not to post the French toast recipe. Marci’s been asking, saying the girls loved it so much that they wanted a copy. But here’s the thing: it’s decadent, extremely rich and… let’s just say not the healthiest. Not that I wouldn’t make it – it’s a special, once-in-a-while treat – but I was worried they’d be upset I fed it to them. Marci finally talked me into it, reassuring me it would all be fine.

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Turkey Done Right Can Be Magical

Turkey Dinner

I’m not trying to brag, but I make a mean roast turkey. For some reason, I can’t always get chicken just right but my turkey, oh, it’s magically, melt-in-your-mouth flavorlicious. Not to sound cheesey, but the special ingredient here may just be the love.

And boy do I love good turkey. I go to Bulls games just to get what I consider to be the best and most over-priced turkey sandwich ever – the one sold at the north end of the United Center. The turkey is sliced to order and is served warm on whole-grain bread with cranberry-mayonnaise and roasted root vegetable chips. I always get the hiccups from eating it too fast. Mmmm, I miss that sandwich…

Anyways, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to make a turkey this year (either for the family Thanksgiving or for any of my various culinary jobs) and, to be completely honest, I was also bit disappointed in the one I ate for Thanksgiving. After the holiday I thought about buying a discounted whole turkey but what would I do with it? Certainly I couldn’t eat a whole bird myself and I didn’t have the freezer space to store it for future company. Even the whole turkey breasts were too much. So I passed, thinking this year I’d have to do without.

Turkey and Potatoes in Oven

Then, on a random stop at Trader Joe’s this afternoon to buy dark chocolate covered raisins (usually the only thing I buy there), I came across an affordable half turkey breast on the bone. I did what any other rational person would do: bought it. I also happened to stumble across a bag of multi-colored small potatoes and added them to the basket, thus making this the most I’ve ever bought at that store in one purchase.


At home I found a bit of fresh sage, a bag of cranberries (I’d bought them right after Thanksgiving knowing they stay fresh for a long time) and some baby spinach. I minced the sage (about 2 teaspoons) and mixed it with 1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter and a pinch of salt and garlic powder, which I then rubbed all over the seasoned turkey including under the skin. I roasted it in the oven until the internal temperature reached 160F (the temperature increased while resting due to carry-over), about an hour and 10 minutes, basting with the butter blend every 20 minutes. I  added the potatoes and five cloves unpeeled garlic to the pan after 20 minutes. Once the turkey was done cooking, I transferred it to a cutting board to rest and placed the potatoes on a plate. Then I made the jus by discarding the extra fat in the pan, placing the pan over medium-high heat and deglazing with chicken stock which I reduced by half.

Sliced Turkey

I made the cranberry sauce on the stovetop while the turkey was roasting by mixing about half the bag of cranberries (about 6 oz) with enough water to cover and a few tablespoons sugar. I gently simmered it until the cranberries burst and the mixture thickened to a jelly-like consistency. The spinach was simply steamed with a pinch of salt.


Finally, I served myself dinner and then called my mom to brag about the delicious meal she was missing (okay, I had to brag somewhere). And I ate the dark chocolate raisins for dessert.


Seriously Delicious West African Peanut Soup

West African Peanut Soup with Rice

When I signed on to teach cooking classes to children through a non-profit organization, I had hoped to impart my culinary knowledge on these young minds and teach them valuable nutrition and cooking skills. What I didn’t expect was to become exposed to new dishes myself, one of which made such an impression that I went out and bought the ingredients to make it at home the next day.

Sweating aromatics

The recipe: West African Peanut Soup. This vegan soup is made from the curious combination of sweet potato, tomato and peanut butter, among other ingredients. I know – it sounds disgusting but let me assure that it’s delicious! Even the kids loved it!

Vegetables & liquids

And, aside from tasting great, the soup is high in protein and loaded with vegetables (sweet potato, onion, carrot, tomato). But I haven’t even gotten to my favorite part: it’s made in just one pot! Oh, how I love a one-pot-wonder.


I served the West African Peanut Soup with white rice cooked in vegetable stock and garnished it with scallions. I would have added chopped peanuts to the garnish but didn’t realize I’d run out until it was too late to buy more.

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Caramel-Pecan Tartlets

Caramel-Pecan Tartlet

These two-bite caramel-pecan tartlets are the perfect treat for holiday entertaining and will definitely impress your guests. I made them recently as a way to use up leftover home-made caramel sauce, which in-and-of-itself is absolutely delicious. But pairing the caramel sauce with a buttery pie crust, toasted pecans and rich chocolate took it to a new level. One note: serve the tartlets at room temperature so the caramel becomes soft, otherwise the tartlets will taste dry.

I brought the tartlets to my friend Sara’s house for her son’s third birthday party. I considered the tartlets a success when the kid ate one and told me he “really likes the cookies.” Too cute!

Caramel - changing color

I made my own pie crust but you could just as easily use store-bought (the kind that comes rolled in the freezer section). But I do recommend making your own caramel – it’s actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it and its intense, rich flavor is unmatched.

Caramel-Pecan Tartlets (makes 24)

1 recipe pie crust (see below) or 1 store-bought pie crust cut into 24 squares

1/2 cup caramel sauce, at room temperature (see below)

1/3 cup toasted pecans, roughly chopped

4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray a mini-muffin tin with cooking spray. Pat 1 tablespoon pie crust dough into each muffin tin so the dough evenly covers the bottom and sides. Dock the bottom of each crust with a fork and freeze for 30 minutes.

Remove the crusts from the freezer and place in the oven. Bake the pie crusts until they turn light brown, about 20 minutes. Let them cool in the pan for five minutes, then gently remove and place on a cooling rack.

Docking Melting chocolate

In the meantime, set a pot filled one-third with water over medium heat. Pour the chocolate into a metal or glass bowl and set the bowl on top of the pot to melt the chocolate (double-boiler). Stir often until all the chocolate has melted.

With pecans With caramel

Once the tartlet shells have cooled, fill each with a few pecan pieces then pour 1 teaspoon of the soft caramel sauce on top (you can microwave the caramel in 10-second intervals until it becomes liquid). Drizzle the chocolate over the tartlets and refrigerate until set. Bring the tartlets to room temperature before serving.

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