RECIPES: A taste of 2020 — These recipes helped get us through a very tough year

Orange-Almond Cake (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

I almost didn't write this story. I didn't want to spend one more minute thinking about 2020.

I was eager to move on and look ahead to all the tasty things we will eat in 2021.

But then a little nagging voice in the back of my head stopped me. We gave up so much last year — time together to celebrate, to grieve, to embrace, to simply be in each other's company. I didn't want this annual roundup of favorite recipes — a Food section staple that dates to 2004 — to be another casualty of 2020.

The year took so much from us, but it also brought us together — at least in spirit over the interwebs — especially in the kitchen.

The following are my favorite recipes published in these pages in 2020. These are the recipes I made again and again. They are the recipes that nourished my body and provided a moment of solace during a difficult, difficult year.

In chronological order:

This cake is a bite of sunshine. Perfect for perking up a dreary day.

Orange-Almond Cake

  • 10 tablespoons butter, softened
  • ¾ cup granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling
  • Finely grated zest of 1 clementine, tangerine or mandarin orange (I used a Microplane rasp-style grater)
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup almond flour/meal
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour (gluten-free flour works well)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of an 8-inch cake pan with a round of parchment paper. (A springform pan works well.)

In a mixing bowl, beat butter, sugar and clementine zest with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract, and then the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition. Slowly mix in the flours and blend well.

Bake 30 to 40 minutes or until golden brown.

Sprinkle about 1 teaspoon sugar over warm cake and let cool completely before serving.

Cake will keep, covered, at room temperature for about 3 days.

Makes about 8 servings.

From Front Burner, Jan. 22, 2020

Cheddar and Potato Pierogi (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Cheddar and Potato Pierogi (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

If you've only ever eaten pierogi from the freezer department at the grocery store, you're in for a treat.

These homemade pierogi are time consuming — this recipe takes about 2 hours from start to finish — but if you whip up several batches and stash them in the freezer, they take no longer to cook than the grocery store kind, and they are loads better. Like in a completely different league better.

Cheddar and Potato Pierogi

  • For the dough:
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons sour cream
  • 1 egg
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • For the filling:
  • 12 ounces russet potatoes (about 2 medium), scrubbed well or peeled
  • Salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 small yellow onion, diced
  • 4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
  • Ground black pepper, divided use
  • 1 egg yolk
  • For serving:
  • Butter, for browning or melting
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 1 bunch chives or green onions, minced
  • Hot sauce, optional for serving

Place 1 ¾ cups of the flour in a large bowl.

In a small bowl, combine butter and ¼ cup water. Microwave on 100% power for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Stir until butter is melted. Let cool slightly. Whisk in the sour cream, egg and salt. Add the egg mixture to the bowl of flour and mix with your hands until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Continue mixing with your hands until dough comes together as one manageable ball. If mixture is wet and sticky, work in some of the reserved flour, a little at a time, until the dough no longer sticks to your hands. Place dough on a lightly floured surface and knead 2 to 3 minutes, to create a smooth and somewhat firm ball. Return dough to bowl, cover and let rest 30 minutes to 2 hours.

Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan and add enough water to just cover. Bring water to a boil, add about ½ teaspoon salt, reduce heat and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes.

Drain well. If using unpeeled potatoes, set potatoes aside until just cool enough to handle. If potatoes are peeled, mash until mostly smooth.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until tender and golden brown. Add onion to the mashed potatoes and let cool. Stir the cheese into the cooled potatoes and onion. Taste and season with salt and pepper (I used about 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper). Add egg yolk and mix well.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a tea towel (dust towel with flour).

Knead the dough once or twice to soften, then divide it into four equal pieces. Working with one portion at a time (keep the remaining portions covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap), roll each portion to about an eighth-inch thick. If dough sticks to surface, sprinkle lightly with flour. Cut dough into 2 ½ to 3-inch circles using biscuit cutter or drinking glass. Gather scraps and place them under the towel or plastic with the remaining dough.

Brush the outer edge of each round with a bit of water. Place about a tablespoon of filling in the center of each dough round. Fold dumplings using half-moon fold. Press edges to seal. Place dumplings on the prepared baking sheet and keep covered with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Combine all the scraps into a ball, then roll the ball out and cut as many rounds from it as you can. Fill and fold those too.

Cover and refrigerate the assembled dumplings for 30 minutes to 1 hour before cooking. Dumplings can also be frozen for up to 6 months. Place the tray in the freezer until dumplings are solid, and then place in bags or containers. Do not thaw before cooking.

To cook: Fill a large pot halfway with water and add about 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a steady simmer.

Working in batches, gently add dumplings, one by one and being careful not to overcrowd them, into the simmering water. Gently stir to prevent sticking. Cook dumplings until all of them are floating, about 3 minutes, and then cook for 2 minutes more. Add a minute or two if cooking from frozen. Remove with a slotted spoon to a bowl and drizzle with a ladle of cooking water to prevent sticking. Repeat with remaining dumplings.

If desired, brown the boiled dumplings in butter before serving.

Serve topped with sour cream, chives, ground black pepper and a drizzle of hot sauce, if desired.

Makes 30 to 40 dumplings.

Recipe adapted from "The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide" by Wai Hon Chu and Connie Lovatt

From Front Burner, March 11, 2020

Beefy, Cheesy Ravioli Bake
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Beefy, Cheesy Ravioli Bake (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

This cheesy and beefy and tomato-y pasta bake hits the spot when dinner needs to be both filling and comforting.

Beefy, Cheesy Ravioli Bake

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • Olive oil or vegetable oil, for sauteing
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
  • 1 (20-ounce) package refrigerated cheese ravioli
  • 2 cups homemade or jarred red pasta sauce
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Parmesan, for serving

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large skillet, cook ground beef, breaking it into crumbles, until no longer pink. Remove beef; drain and set aside.

In the same skillet add just enough oil to coat and place over medium heat. Add the onion and bell pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until onion and bell pepper are tender. Add the garlic, basil, oregano and chile flakes and cook, stirring constantly, for about two minutes. Add the ravioli to the skillet, then the tomato sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally until ravioli are tender, about five minutes.

If the skillet is large enough, return the ground beef to the skillet and stir well to mix. If your skillet isn't large enough, combine the ground beef and ravioli mixture in a large mixing bowl and mix well.

Transfer the mixture to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Sprinkle the mozzarella evenly over the top and bake 15 to 20 minutes or until cheese is melted and browned in spots. Serve with parmesan.

Makes about 6 servings.

From Front Burner April 29, 2020

Cheesy Broiled Tomatoes (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Cheesy Broiled Tomatoes (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

Perhaps the best thing about this recipe is it is almost as good with winter tomatoes from the supermarket as it is with summer tomatoes.

Cheesy Broiled Tomatoes

  • 4 roma tomatoes, sliced
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • ¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • Basil, thyme, parsley, oregano, crushed red pepper flakes or other desired herbs
  • Olive oil, for drizzling

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Line one or two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

Arrange tomato slices on the prepared baking sheet(s) in a single layer. Season each slice with a little salt and pepper.

In a bowl, combine the mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. Divide cheeses among tomato slices. Sprinkle desired herbs or seasonings over cheese. Drizzle lightly with olive oil.

Bake at 375 degrees for 5 minutes or until cheese is melted and then broil until cheese is bubbly and golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes more.

Serve hot.

Makes 4 servings.

Recipe adapted from

From 'Mater mastery July 22, 2020

Butter-Basted Fish Filets With Garlic and Thyme (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Butter-Basted Fish Filets With Garlic and Thyme (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

This recipe won over even the pickiest of nonfish eaters and quickly became my go-to preparation method.

Butter-Basted Fish Filets With Garlic and Thyme

  • 2 (6- to 8-ounce) skinless cod filets, about 1 inch thick
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • Ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges

Pat filets dry with paper towels. Season all sides with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Reduce heat to medium and place the fish, skinned side down, in the skillet. Using a fish spatula, gently press on each filet for 5 seconds to ensure good contact with the pan. Cook filets, without moving, for 4 to 5 minutes or until underside is light golden brown.

Carefully flip fish and cook for 1 minute. Scatter the butter around the fish. When the butter is melted, tilt the skillet slightly toward you so the butter pools in the front of the skillet. Using a long-handled spoon, scoop up melted butter and pour it over the fish repeatedly for 15 seconds. Return skillet to flat position and cook 30 seconds. Tilt and baste again with butter for 15 seconds. Return skillet to flat position and using an instant read thermometer, check the internal temperature of each filet. Continue basting and cooking until fish reaches an internal temperature of 130 degrees. Add garlic and thyme at the "12 o'clock" position — careful — butter will spatter. When the spattering subsides, continue basting and cooking until the filets reach an internal temperature of 135 degrees at the thickest point. Total cooking time will be 8 to 10 minutes.

Transfer filets to individual plates. Discard garlic. Top each filet with thyme sprigs and melted butter. Serve with lemon wedges.

Makes 2 servings.

From Front Burner Aug. 5, 2020

Seared Scallops Over Corn, Peaches and Tomatoes (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant) 08/05/20
Seared Scallops Over Corn, Peaches and Tomatoes (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant) 08/05/20

Beach vacations were among the many things many of us missed out on last year, but this recipe let us eat as if we were there.

Seared Scallops Over Corn, Peaches and Tomatoes

  • Olive oil
  • 1 ear corn, shucked OR ¾ cup corn kernels
  • 1 to 2 peaches, sliced
  • 1 cup mixed cherry and grape tomatoes, halved or quartered
  • ½ fresh jalapeno, thinly sliced
  • Several sprigs fresh thyme, divided use
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • 1 lime, halved
  • 10 to 12 ounces sea scallops, abductor (side) muscle removed, patted dry
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Lightly coat a grill pan or other heavy skillet with olive oil. Heat pan until smoking. Add corn and cook until lightly browned.

Cut corn kernels from the cob into a large bowl. Add the peaches, tomatoes, jalapenos and a bit of the thyme; season to taste with salt and pepper. Drizzle generously with olive oil and squeeze half of the lime over all and set aside.

Season the scallops on both sides with salt and pepper.

Heat about 1 tablespoon of oil in a large nonstick skillet until smoking over medium heat. Add the scallops in a single layer. Cook for 90 seconds and then add the butter. Once the butter melts, turn the scallops and tilt and swirl the pan to distribute the butter. Continue cooking for 1 to 2 minutes until the scallops are cooked to your liking. Avoid overcooking.

Divide the corn-peach mixture between two plates. Top with scallops. Cut the remaining lime half in half and squeeze over all. Garnish each plate with the remaining thyme.

Makes 2 servings.

From Front Burner, Aug. 19, 2020

Ultra Nutty Pecan Bars (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant) 10/22/2020
Ultra Nutty Pecan Bars (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant) 10/22/2020

What's better than pecan pie? These pecan bars.

Ultra Nutty Pecan Bars

  • 1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt, divided use
  • 15 tablespoons butter, divided use (I used salted)
  • ¾ cup packed light brown sugar
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 pound (about 4 cups) shelled pecans

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Line a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with parchment paper, leaving about 2 inches overhang on two opposite sides.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, granulated sugar and ½ teaspoon salt.

Melt 8 tablespoons of the butter and stir the melted butter into the flour mixture until a crumbly dough forms and no dry flour remains. Continue mixing until a small portion of dough holds together when squeezed in your palm. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking pan; using your hands, pat and press mixture into an even layer, making sure to get into the corners; set aside.

In the same bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, corn syrup, vanilla and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Melt the remaining 7 tablespoons of butter and whisk the hot butter into the sugar mixture, whisking until smooth. The mixture may look greasy and separated at first, just keep whisking. Fold in the pecans, gently stirring until the nuts are completely coated with the sugar mixture. Spoon or pour topping over crust and spread it as evenly as possible, making sure to get into the corners of the pan. There will be bare patches. This is OK.

Bake about 25 minutes or until crust is golden and the topping is bubbling rapidly.

Let cool completely in pan — at least 1 ½ hours. Using the overhang as handles, lift bars from pan and transfer to a cutting board. Cut into squares.

Makes 20 to 24 bars.

Recipe adapted from Cook's Illustrated November/December 2020

From Front Burner, Nov. 4, 2020

Cheesy Black Bean Bake 
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant) 12/3/2020
for Cooking for two
Cheesy Black Bean Bake (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant) 12/3/2020 for Cooking for two

This is my go-to recipe when I want a quick but filling meal. Changing up the beans and cheeses will keep you out of a rut if you make this often, as I do.

Cheesy Black Bean Bake

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • ¾ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained
  • ¼ cup boiling-hot water
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • 3 to 4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
  • Warm tortillas, cooked rice, or tortilla chips for serving
  • Cilantro, optional garnish
  • Hot sauce, for serving

Heat oven to 450 degrees.

In an 8-inch oven-safe skillet heat the olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. Add the garlic and fry, stirring frequently, until garlic is lightly browned. Watch the heat carefully, so the garlic does not burn. Stir in the ketchup, paprika, pepper flakes and cumin; cook, stirring, for 30 seconds to 1 minute more. Add the beans and water and stir to combine. Season with salt and ground black pepper. Sprinkle evenly with the cheese. Transfer skillet to oven and bake 5 to 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted and beans are bubbly.

Serve immediately with tortillas or rice and garnished with cilantro and hot sauce, if desired.

Makes 2 main dish servings.

Recipe adapted from The New York Times

From Cooking for Two, Dec. 9, 2020

Frances' Eggnog (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Frances' Eggnog (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

This recipe has been in my family for decades, but it wasn't until late December that I wrote about it. I'm already looking forward to next eggnog season so I can whip up a batch.

Frances' Eggnog

  • 6 eggs (see note)
  • 1 pound confectioners' sugar, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup brandy
  • ½ cup rum
  • ½ cup bourbon or Southern Comfort
  • 1 quart milk
  • 1 quart half-and-half
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream, whipped to soft peaks
  • Nutmeg, for serving

In a very large mixing bowl, beat eggs. Strain eggs through a fine-mesh sieve and return strained eggs to mixing bowl. Slowly add the confectioners' sugar and salt, beating on low speed until completely incorporated. Slowly add the liquors, one at a time, stirring or beating on low speed the entire time. Slowly beat in the milk and then the half-and-half. Transfer the mixture to a 1-gallon pitcher and then top with the whipped cream. Chill until ready to serve. Sprinkle with nutmeg just before serving.

Makes about 3 quarts.

Note: This recipe contains uncooked eggs, which sometimes contain salmonella bacteria, which can cause serious illness. If you are concerned about consuming raw eggs, you have a couple of options: Use pasteurized eggs or heat the mixture in a double boiler to 160 degrees. Do not let it boil. Heating it will thicken it somewhat. Chill well before serving.

From Front Burner, Dec. 23, 2020