How to win a neighborhood bake-off in 8 easy steps:

1. Ask awesome friends for recipes. Keep in mind that chocolate always wins.

2. Stay late at work with the farm bill. Dash home. Run out of time to make planned recipes. Turn to the easy, delicious Black Russian Cake.

3. Take cake mix, add vodka and chocolate. Put it in a cathedral-shaped bundt pan and wait for the magic to happen.

4. While cake is cooling, walk across the street to neighborhood party for a little egg nog.

5. Return home. Sprinkle beautifully-shaped cake with powdered sugar and douse with kahlua. Remember that plate-ing works wonders in fancy restaurants. Put cake on a nice platter and a cake stand. Bring the silver “happy holidays” pie server you bought at a junk shop.

6. Return to the party, as people “ooo” and “aaah” at your cake, which is towering above all the other desserts on its cake stand.

7. Eat yummy treats. Note that people really like a little booze on their cake.
8. Win the prize for “prettiest” dessert and tie for first-place for “overall best: queen of desserts.” Call it good. H-block rocks the house.


Friends, I need your help. Our three-block neighborhood posse is having a little holiday get-together on Monday. They want people to bring baked goods. But they upped the ante: it’s not just a time to share baked goods, but compare them …. and not just compare but compete. Yes, a neighborhood holiday bake-off. And I won’t lie: I want to win. So help me out, what is the best homemade baked good ever, and how do I make it? It needs to be something that is share-able among about ten or twenty people too … so a somewhat large delicious baked treat. It should probably also have some holiday element, but I think deliciousness will beat out style.

pumpfest07.jpgpumpkin chilicayenne pepper

On Saturday evening we made a culinary salute to pumpkins and fall with a big pot of pumpkin black bean chili, beer bread (with herbs from our garden), pumpkin dip, and pumpkin chocolate chip muffins. Some friends came over and we read Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” out loud, which was great fun.

The pumpkin black bean chili came from a new recipe we had just received via email from one of our beloved NPR shows, The Splendid Table. It was pretty much the best alternative chili ever, if I do say so myself. We used butternut squash, acorn squash and some kind of cute but not very meat-y pumpkin-esque squash — all procured at the wonderful Mt. Pleasant farmer’s market. We also added in half a pound of kale (also from Mt. P) — it was a great addition; we should have used more.

Now, to make the recipe EXTRA SPECIAL and a little bit stressful, we (accidentally) substituted cayenne pepper for chili powder, adding in an entire container of cayenne pepper, rather than 1/4 of a teaspoon. A note to our readers: cayenne pepper and chili powder are not exactly interchangeable spices, cayenne being *significantly* more pepperiffic. So, one might say we overdid it a little with the pepper — and by “overdid it” I mean “made the soup taste like cayenne juice.” I fished the pumpkin and some of the tomatoes and onions out of the fiery hot cayenne liquid, put them in a colander in the sink and rinsed them in water. Meanwhile, Ned ran down the street to our new favorite neighborhood corner store to get more onions and tomatoes. Upon his return we started all over again, this time adding *chili powder* rather than cayenne. In fact, we had no more cayenne to add the second time, so the second insoupation relied on residual pepper from our first gaff.

Our end result was delicious. I assume that actually following the recipe would yield an equally tasty soup, but I can only personally vouch for our somewhat zanier method — make soup, dump in cayenne, shriek in horror, fish out pumpkin, rinse, remake soup without pepper. Perhaps it adds a more complex layer of cayenne flavors to the mix.

Pumpkin and Black Bean Chili
Excerpted from One-Dish Vegetarian Meals: 150 Easy, Wholesome, and Delicious Soups, Stews, Casseroles, Stir-Fries, Pastas, Rice Dishes, Chilis, and More. Copyright 2007 by Robin Robertson. Obtained from The Splendid Table “weeknight kitchen” email.

Serves 4 to 6

* 2 pounds pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and seeded
* 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
* 1 large onion, chopped
* 1 garlic clove, minced
* 1 jalapeño chile, minced
* One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
* One 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes
* 1 cup water
* 1 cup apple juice
* 4 tablespoons chili powder
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
* 3 cups cooked or canned black beans, rinsed and drained if canned

1. Cut the pumpkin into 1/2-inch chunks and set aside.

2. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and jalapeño. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the reserved pumpkin, diced tomatoes, crushed tomatoes, water, apple juice, chili powder, salt, and cayenne, and stir well. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the pumpkin is tender, about 30 minutes.

3. Add the beans, and more water if the chili is too thick for your taste. Cover, and continue to simmer about 15 minutes to blend flavors. Serve hot.