Holiday Love

A Valentine Oyster — An aphrodisiac or just delicious?

The most memorable words my culinary chef/instructor said to me was the evening we were introduced to shellfish; oysters to be exact.  

With a shucked oyster in his hand, he said, “Beth this is nectar of the Gods.” He then brought the shell up to his lips, tilted his head back, sucked in and slurped it right down. Finished he looked me straight in the eye and said,

“It’s better than sex!”

I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas; which is North Central.  You could only get oysters at a little place called J&J Oyster Bar. They served Gulf oysters (Texas Gulf) and my Dad loved eating them; and still does.  I on the other hand watched my dad slurp those bad boys down thinking, gross! How can he eat those slimy, sandy and musky smelling globules?  I couldn’t stomach it.  Plus, there was always a lot of condiment action involved with eating the oysters; hot sauce, tarter sauce, horseradish and lemon. Seemed to me they were just a vehicle for the extras.  That was my first introduction to the oyster.

So you could imagine my trepidation when I walked into my culinary class and oysters were on the menu.  Even though Chef Pascal professed his undying love, I still didn’t try one; not in class anyway.

I finally had the courage to try an oyster in my first line cook job.  We would occasionally have oysters on the menu.  Since we were encouraged to try everything it was pretty much a given that I would have to suck it up and eat one.  Well, the Executive Chef was very kind to me.  She really gave me a lesson on the differences between cold and warm water shellfish; such as the level of brininess, size and texture.  

To this day I will never forget the first time I tried an oyster while working at the restaurant. It came from the Atlantic Ocean. It was called a Moonstone; icy, sweet, briny and a little magical.  I’ve tried many oysters since; mostly from cold waters (I just think they have a better flavor).  Never do I have anything but a little mignonette splashed on my oyster - if that.  

So, I’m not going to say if an oyster is better than sex or not.  I will say that eating the right oyster, at the right time and with the right condiment (or not) lends itself to something quite remarkable - if not just delicious! Here’s your recipe. 


1/4C of shallot, peeled & minced
1/2C seasoned Rice Vinegar
2tsp of fresh coarsely ground black pepper
6 shucked oysters - half-shell
Crushed ice


Several hours before serving oysters, combine shallot, vinegar and pepper in a container with a lid.  Tightly seal, shake vigorously and place in the refrigerator to store until ready to use.

Pour crushed ice into a 2” deep dish spreading around so that the ice comes up right below the top of the rim.  Take the oysters on the half-shell and arrange them decoratively around the outer edge of the dish.  

Take mignonette (vinegar mixture) out of the fridge and pour into a small ramekin.  Place ramekin in the center of the pan with a small spoon.  Serve.

Tips & Techniques

To store whole oysters buy fresh as possible, place in a stainless steel container and put them into your fridge.
Many fish markets will shuck the oysters for you.  Although it may be a few extra dollars it’s worth it.  If you are not familiar with shucking an oyster it’s the safest and simplest way to go. I recommend it.
Mignonette is a traditional French sauce used on oysters to compliment the brininess of the oyster.  
For a comprehensive introduction to types of oysters check out Rowan Jacobsen’s blog The Oyster Guide 

Valentines: A Red Wine Chocolate Cake with Essence of Orange & Cinnamon

For the last several years my in-laws have gifted us a subscription to the magazine, La Cucina Italiana.  I love receiving, browsing and drooling over the pictures and recipes each month.  However, I’ve never cooked or baked anything from it.  That is until right before Christmas and our January/February issue came to the door with the title “Italy’s best desserts” and a picture of a red wine chocolate cake on the front.  

For some reason I had to bake that cake and I did.  

It didn’t take too much effort and the result was really great.  I added a few extras to give it a little somethin’ somethin’: cinnamon and orange zest.  And by simply adding the two extra ingredients the flavor dynamic crossed borders into Spain.  

This recipe is taken from the magazine and adapted from Francine Degan.

It was a total hit over our Christmas holiday.  That said I think it’s the perfect Valentine chocolate treat!


1Tbls of unsalted butter
1 1/2C of all-purpose flour
1Tbls of baking powder
1tsp of ground cinnamon
1/2tsp of kosher salt
1C (or 2 sticks) of butter, unsalted
1 1/4C of granulated sugar
3 large eggs, separated into 2 containers: yolks - small & whites - a large mixing bowl 
5 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate, finely grated or shaved (see tips for cacao % & type)
1Tbls orange zest
1C dry red wine
1-2Tbls of cocoa powder, optional
*Heat oven to 350F


Prepare a 9x3” springform pan buttering both the bottom and all the way up the sides with 3/4 of the tablespoon of butter.  Then line the bottom of it with a round of parchment paper. Use the remaining 1/4 Tbls to finish buttering the parchment round.  

Whisk together flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl then set aside.  With either a Kitchen Aid or bowl and beater, beat 1C of butter and 1/2C of sugar until incorporated; light and fluffy.  Add each egg yolk separately; beating gently to incorporate in to butter/sugar mixture.  Stop and scrape down bowl as necessary.  

Add chocolate and orange zest,  beat until just combined.  To this add both wine and flour mixture in 3 different increments. Set aside.

Take your egg whites and begin to beat (either clean or an additional set of beaters needed) them on medium until soft peaks form.  While beating gradually add the remaining 3/4C sugar until the soft peaks become firm and glossing = hard peak.

With a large spatula begin folding the whites into the chocolate batter.  Continue folding the whites into the batter until no white remains.  

Immediately pour into prepared springform pan.  Smooth the top with an off-set spatula, place into preheated oven.

Bake up to 45 minutes checking at 15 minute intervals.  Cake is done when a small skewer is inserted into the center and comes out clean.

Take out of oven and place on a baking rack to cool.  When cool release from pan, remove parchment paper and place on decorative plate. 

Garnish with cocoa by gently shaking it over the cake through a small mesh sieve.  

Serve at your leisure. Serves up to 8 people generously. 

Tips and Techniques

Use a semisweet chocolate with up to 82% cacao. I used 62% and it worked out just fine.
Use a good quality chocolate like Scharffen Berger which is what I used.  If that isn’t in your price range then Ghiradelli works great too.  
This cake is great for a light dessert or for an afternoon pick-me-up with coffee and/or tea.
This cake has a good shelf life. I had it on the counter for 1 week wrapped gently with plastic wrap and it lasted exceptionally well.
You have your choice of any number of garnishes; sky’s the limit - you choose! But here’s a few to get you started: chocolate sauce, caramel, whipped cream, fresh berries etc…

The Best Panettone in the World

No! I do not like bread that is naturally sweet or bread with candied anything, nuts or fruit. There, I said the blasphemous no word torward a beloved holiday food like, well, panettone. 

For those who don’t know what panettone is I’ll give you a little information.  It’s a traditional Italian sweet bread that originated in Milan.  It’s made with any number of candied fruit, citron, raisins and citrus zest; namely lemon or orange.  It’s tall, light and in some instances extremely fluffy.  What’s not to like?  

And that’s where Williams-Sonoma comes into my story. 

Now I’m not one to overly exclaim how much I like a certain space, but I really do love Williams-Sonoma (and don’t forget the s at the end of Williams).  I’ve had a lot of firsts there like; teaching a cooking class, buying my first box of Maldon salt and most importantly having my very first taste of a sweet bread called panettone.

This is your first look at the best panettone in the world! 


I must have been going through a weird, I want to try everything chestnut stage, during holiday shopping one year.  I stepped into the store and they had samples out for a taste.  And I did just that.  OMG!  I went back for more. Then bought not one but two cannisters of this delectible sweet bread.  Then I walked out of the store and told everyone I knew about it. 

Now, it’s my go-to holiday party, house, family and just because gift. 

According to the labeling on the cannister that carries the panettone it is made by, Pasticceria Scarpato.  However, don’t go tryin’ to “get it a little cheaper” by going to the source (Ok, true confession: I’ve tried.) Because you won’t find it easily accessible as it’s made exclusively for Williams-Sonama.  

Here’s my advice: buy it ON-LINE.  Or if you really love the holiday mall shopping experience, RUN to a retail store. Don’t dwadle because they do sell-out.

Like I said, I’ve always been a no person to a sweet bread.  Let’s just say that this panettone has given me a new perspective on the tradition of a holiday sweet bread.

The scent is what first hits you when you open the red cannister; lightly toasted caramel.  The bread is soft and feathery with copious amounts of glazed chestnuts sprinkled throughout.  It’s THE delectible holiday treat.  And why I think it’s the best panettone in the world.  

Thank you Williams-Sonoma.


Holiday Champagne Cocktail with Star Anise

In my book it’s always champagne time! I learned this one evening when we met our good friends, Max and Shari, for cocktails at their Texas home.

It was any ordinary evening; just a Saturday going out.  We knocked on their door and they greeted us with a bottle of their favorite champs from the Schramsberg Vineyard in Napa Valley. And this was before you could get it in the liquor stores or before wine of the month was mailed (legally) to any household here in Texas.  So as you might imagine, and in my mind, this was super special.

I said, “Champagne in the late afternoon?” See, I had only had cheap champagne and only on special occassions.  Shari, more surprised than me, responded, “But of course, why not?”

And why not, indeed!  We drained the bottle merrily! 

Now it’s your turn.  This is a super holiday (and remember - anytime) champagne cocktail.  Simple to make, refreshing and a lighter alternative to other boozy cocktails. 

You need only make a simple syrup with star anise and buy a bottle of your favorite champagne. 


6 whole pieces of star anise
1 bottle of champagne


Pour 3 ounces of champagne into a champagne flute. Add 1/2 ounce of star anise simple syrup.  Garnish with one whole star anise.  Serve.

You can add more star anise simple syrup if you want a bigger flavor and more sweetness.

One bottle of champagne will serve up to 6 people.