I lived in Louisiana for three and a half years and ate my share of pecan pies while there. I’ve made quite a few of them too, from plain ones to chocolate and Bourbon variations—nut and caramel flavors go well with dessert wines. But no matter how good the pie, all these baking and eating efforts never replaced the walnut torte I grew up on in Switzerland. Tarte aux noix des Grisons (Graubünder Nusstorte/walnut torte) is a specialty of the Grisons (Graubünden), the canton in eastern Switzerland where our fourth language, Romansh, is spoken, but it is found throughout the country. It features a shortbread-like dough and a caramely walnut filling sweetened—and flavored—with honey. No corn syrup here, which gives the torte a smoother, creamier filling than its pecan cousin. The tartelette version is open faced, the family-size topped with more dough, which completely encases the filling. Something a very thin layer of chocolate is brushed over the top. It’s the type of tart we buy in pastry and gourmet shops, not so much something we make at home, at least not in my region. Because it is so rich and dense, we cut it in small slivers, to enjoy as dessert or with coffee or tea in the afternoon. It gets better after a day or two, as the flavors mellow together.

Tarte aux noix des Grisons
Tarte aux noix des Grisons, Thanksgiving 2012 (with vanilla buttercream-filled hazelnut macarons and a ginger-molasses cake)

Unfortunately it’s not something I can find commercially here, even in the best New York pastry shops. And I’ve grown tired of pecan pies, which are too often much too sweet. So in recent years, I’ve started making my own tarte aux noix, trying each time to perfect it a little more. I don’t like very sweet desserts but yet I want the honey in the torte to come through, so I use a one with a strong flavor, and not too much of it. A local wildflower honey made at the height of the summer is perfect. Something like buckwheat is a bit too strong and doesn’t taste very “Swiss.” Clover is too mild. I make both open and closed tortes—the open-faced version gives me quicker access to the filling, so I don’t always bother eating even the bottom crust. That’s the craving version. The ratio of dough to filling can easily be off in a closed torte, since the typical dough can be thick, so make sure to roll it thinly enough. An open-faced torte will not have that problem but I like the aesthetic of a closed one; it’s also easier to transport.

Nearly all my Swiss baking books have a recipe, and I’ve tinkered with them all. But when American friends ask me for a recipe, I point them to Nick Malgieri’s. It’s adapted for U.S. ingredients and kitchens, so easy to follow, especially if you’ve never made it before. It also tastes very much like the tartes aux noix I eat when I go home—essential taste tests to keep my palate well informed of all the nuances of this truly special dessert.

One of the best and simplest dinners you can have on a cold, snowy day is Vacherin au Four–a flavorful cheese that is baked until melted, and is then laddled onto boiled potatoes. Vacherin Mont d’Or, a cheese from the canton of Vaud in Switzerland, is the one and only cheese for such preparation, thanks in part to the round pine box in which it is sold. The soft cheese has a pale orange rind and is made from lighly cooked milk (“thermised,” per the Mont d’Or website). It has a strong flavor and smell, particularly if you purchase it on the riper side. It is only available in the winter months. In the US, order it through Murray’s Cheese, which sells it for $28.99 plus shipping. The price in Switzerland is about 20 CHF (but can be more than that depending on your cheesemonger or the weight of the cheese), so this is fairly priced, in my humble opinion, and worth every penny.

Rather than pouring the cheese onto potatoes, you can dip chunks of breads directly into it, as you would eat fondue. Vacherin Mont d’Or is also delicious raw and will make an unusual addition to your cheese platter. If you can get your hands on Swiss wines, a chasselas will be wonderful, but a dry riesling or a gewurtztraminer will be great too, as will a beer.

Vacherin au Four

1 vacherin Mont d’Or, in its wooden box, top of box removed
6 to 8 garlic cloves, or to taste
1/2 cup white wine
Boiled potatoes, to serve

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Wrap the bottom and sides of the vacherin in foil. Pierce the cheese a few times with a knife and insert the garlic cloves in the holes. Pour the white wine on top of the cheese and place in the oven. Bake it until a crust forms and it bubbles up, about 30 minutes.

Place the vacherin on the table, put a couple of potatoes in each plate, and let each guest pour the melted cheese onto the potatoes.

I will be making eggnog at a pot luck later this week, and so was looking for a cocktail in which to use the leftover bourbon. I wanted a simple drink that wouldn’t require the purchase of additional, expensive ingredients. A mint julep sounded good but too summery; I liked the idea of building my cocktail on muddled mint, however. Adding a flavored simple syrup to that base seemed like the right next step to a flavorful cocktail. Ginger came to mind as a natural complement to mint and bourbon, with its winter-appropriate hot kick. Vanilla would round up the flavor combination and pick up on the smoother notes of bourbon while also keeping the ginger in check. I use Buffalo Trace for cocktails, which is an assertive bourbon with a sweet, smokey flavor that pairs well with bitters.

After the Nog

About 7 mint leaves and 1 mint sprig
1/2 fl. ounce ginger-vanilla simple syrup (recipe below)
2 fl. ounces bourbon
4-5 dashes orange bitters (preferably Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 6.)

In a cocktail shaker, muddle the mint leaves with the simple syrup. Fill with ice and pour in the bourbon and bitters. Shake well, then strain into a chilled old-fashioned glass. Garnish with the mint sprig.

Ginger-Vanilla Simple Syrup

1 cup light brown sugar
1 4-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into thick slices
2 vanilla beans, halved and scraped

Bring the sugar, 1 cup water, ginger slices, and vanilla beans to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Continue to cook for about 2 minutes. If the sugar sticks to the sides of the pan, dip a pastry brush in water and brush the sides. Remove from the heat and let steep for 20 minutes.

Strain the cooled syrup into a plastic or glass container and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.

As a consolation for spending too much money paying bills, I ordered a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 15 years last week. I firmly intended on buying nothing else, but got tempted by a bottle of Aperol, which has become a very popular cocktail ingredient. Both arrived yesterday but remained in their box. Tonight was another story, however: After a harrowing few days with hardly any sleep, a big deadline met, a successful meeting with the PR and marketing teams for Culinary Careers, I decided to reward myself with a cocktail (and a nap). I wanted to make a Negroni, because I spent time researching and writing about that and a couple of other Italian cocktails just yesterday and had a craving, but was out of Campari. Since it belongs to the same family of bitter Italian liquors, I decided to use Aperol instead. The result was a more mellow drink–Aperol only contains 11% alcohol, versus more than 20% for Campari–and a slightly sweeter one. Regardless, this variation is one that I will continue to make because it is delicious and perfectly hit the spot. You can shake the ingredients and serve them in a chilled glass if you prefer. Opening three bottles took all the energy I had left so I wasn’t about to go the extra mile, but I enjoy strained negronis in martini glasses, for example.

Aperol Negroni

1 fl. ounce Plymouth gin
1 fl. ounce Aperol
1 fl. ounce Carpano “Antica Formula” Red Vermouth

Place two ice cubes in an old-fashioned glass. Pour the gin, Aperol, and vermouth over the ice and shake the glass slightly to mix. Sip, relax, and repeat.

One of my favorite dishes to cook on a Sunday is a green curry loaded with vegetables and chickpeas or chicken for protein. It allows me to immediately use up some of the vegetables I picked up at the market that day and have plenty of leftovers for a couple of weeknight dinners, since it’s only better reheated. The initial recipe was inspired by Nigella Lawson, whom I had seen make one on the Style Network. It seemed simple and flavorful so I tried it, first making her exact recipe and over the months and years tweaking it more and more to make it my own. I posted a recipe for a Carrot, Potato, and Chickpea Green Curry on my website a few years ago. The one below, made tonight, is a bit different and less exact in its measurements; I might eventually write it up more precisely, but you can still try it and enjoy a very tasty dish.

Cauliflower and Chicken Green Curry

1-2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium shallot, chopped
2 medium cloves garlic, pressed or chopped
Kosher salt to taste
2 13.5-ounce cans coconut milk
2 tablespoons green curry
2 tablespoons fish sauce
Water if needed
1 medium head cauliflower, cut into small florets
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 chicken breasts, cut into thin slivers
Cooked brown rice to serve

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the onions, shallots, and garlic, sprinkle some salt, and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. This process might go faster, so make sure to pay close attention and to stir frequently with a wooden spoon.

Add the coconut milk, curry, and fish sauce and stir to combine. Bring to a boil. If it looks like there won’t be enough liquid to properly cook the cauliflower (if your cauliflower is on the large side), add 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water. Taste and add curry and/or fish sauce if needed; this is particularly recommended if you add water, which might dilute the taste of the other ingredients. The liquid should be slightly thinner than a butternut squash soup.

Reduce the heat to medium and stir the cauliflower and bell pepper into the liquid. Add some salt to taste. Let the cauliflower cook for about 10 minutes, until it is about halfway done. Stir in the chicken and continue to cook for 7 to 10 minutes, until everything is cooked. The cauliflower should still have some crunch to it, unless of course you prefer it to be on the soft side.

To serve, put some brown rice into your bowl and ladle the curry onto it. Refrigerate the leftovers to enjoy throughout the week, reheated or at room temperature.

Every once in a while I taste something so, so good that I immediately need to obtain the recipe. I might not get to cook the dish right away, but I need to know that I can succumb to my craving any time I want to. That’s what happened after eating a slice of David Leite’s Portuguese Orange-Olive Oil Cake at a potluck last night. The cake was incredibly moist but not oily and the flavors of both the orange and the olive oil came through harmoniously. I could picture serving it with Earl Grey in the afternoon, with rum-laced whipped cream as a dessert, and nibbling at it all on my own any time. I didn’t know that it was David’s at the time, but had to track down the woman who made it in the crowd of 100 to get the recipe right away and found out that it was from his book, The New Portuguese Table. She cautioned that the batter is looser than you might expect before you bake it, so don’t be afraid if that’s the case when you make it. I’m getting to it this weekend.