Celebrate with Babs: Holiday Recipes & Family Traditions from the TikTok Grandma

              Barbara Costello didn’t do social media when she first helped her daughter by posting a cooking video on TikTok.

              “I thought TikTok was all about dancing,” says Costello, the mother of four and grandmother of eight, who is known as Grandma Babs. Her first post was in April 2020 during the pandemic. Nine months later she had 200,000 followers. Now it’s closing in on two million.

              “By the time we hang up, you’ll probably have 20,000 more followers,” I tell Costello who is in the car with her daughter, Liz Ariola, on their way to a book signing.

              I’m only half joking.

Soaring Numbers

              Besides TikTok followers on her Brunch with Babs site, Costello also has 660,000 followers on Instagram. In comparison, I have 1989. Not that I’m jealous.

              Costello, who is 73, is considered a granfluencer—a growing trend of older people who are kicking it on social media. And now she has a cookbook, “Celebrate with Babs: Holiday Recipes & Family Traditions” featuring one hundred of her tried and true handwritten recipes that she pulled from her wood recipe box.

              “I started collecting recipes before the internet,” she says. “You used to go over to someone’s house for dinner and leave with recipe cards of what was served that night.”

              The book is divided by holidays and celebrations which are a big deal in the Costello family.

              “We’re Italian and we like big noisy get-togethers,” she says. “My mom was one of nine and I have 21 first cousins. Even after Bill and I got married there were so many of us that we still sat at the children’s table when everyone got together.”

              Originally from the Chicago area, Costello taught middle school in Schaumburg before the family moved, ending up in Connecticut where they’ve lived for decades. Costello opened her own pre-school (they called them nursery schools back then) in the basement of her house. She thinks the skills she learned as a teacher and administrator are part of what connects her to her audience. And she is all about connections.

              “I still get invited to the weddings of my preschoolers,” she says. “And many of them have remained friends with their pre-school classmates and they’re at the weddings. I think that’s wonderful after all those years.”

              Costello describes herself as having gone from zero to 60 miles-per-hour.

              “I never expected this,” she says. “People ask me if I have a business plan and I say what’s that? I’m making it up along the way.”

              It was Ariola who got her mom in the business. Social media savvy, Ariola writes the popular mom blog Mrs. Nipple blog (get it—aureole/ariola) and asked her mom for help during her pregnancy. Despite morning sickness, Ariola was trying to launch a TikTok channel and got her mom to agree to film three videos while her two grandchildren were napping.

              The first video showing Costello making her grandmother’s Greek chicken recipe garnered 100,000 views. Somewhere along the line, one of her viewers was a cookbook editor. The rest, as they say, is history.

              Even though the book is divided into holidays, each section with a special memory or anecdote, Costello says they recipes are good for everyday as well.

              “Recipes are recipes,” she says. In other words, you don’t have to wait until Easter to make marinated leg of lamb, apricot glazed ham, or Grandma’s Easter Bread.

Bonding Over Meals

              Even though she was a working mom, Costello always made family meals.

              “People didn’t do fast food like they do now,” she says. “And I think it’s very important for families to eat together.”

              Indeed, one of her hopes for her cookbook and her social media popularity is that it will encourage people to cook more and enjoy dinner together. In the meantime, she’s going to keep cooking.

              “My mom is always over the top when it comes to celebrations,” says Ariola, noting her mother’s tendency to make way too much food.

              “Being raised in an Italian family,” says Costello, “ I learned that the worst thing that could happen is that there wasn’t enough food to feed everyone.”

              That certainly won’t happen on her watch.

Smash Cake

“I always look forward to our grandkids’ first birthdays,” writes Costello. “My daughter loves showering her sons with smash cakes when they have that special birthday. She strips them down and lets them go at the cake. It’s a ton of fun to see how their little personalities shine in this moment. This is not only the favorite of my one-year-old grandson Scooter, but also a hit with my toddler-aged grandkids, too. Even I love it! I’ve made this recipe as just a loaf when not celebrating a special one-year-old in the family. The cream cheese frosting and the cake are the perfect combo.”

prep time

15 minutes, plus 2 hours to cool

cook time

50 minutes

yield

1 smash cake plus 1 loaf (serves about 9)

Ingredients

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • ½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup pure maple syrup
  • 2 (4 oz containers unsweetened applesauce
  • 1¾ cups  all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • Pinch of fine kosher salt

Cream Cheese Frosting:

  • 8 oz  cream cheese, softened
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • Natural food coloring (optional)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and line 2 (4-inch) ramekins or cake pans, and 1 (9 x 5-inch) loaf pan with parchment paper.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and sugar together until pale and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the maple syrup and applesauce. Beat until well combined.

3. Using a fine-mesh sieve, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt into the wet mixture. Stir until combined. Spoon the mixture into the ramekins until three-fourths full. Pour the rest of the batter into the loaf pan.

4. Bake the smash cakes for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Bake the loaf for an additional 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let stand for 15 minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool completely.

5. Make the frosting. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter until well combined. Add the powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat until smooth and creamy, scraping the side of the bowl once or twice during mixing. If desired, beat in a few drops of natural food coloring of your choice.

6. To assemble the smash cake, place the bottom half on a serving plate. Spoon frosting over. Add the remaining layer. Spread frosting over the top and side of the cake. Add decorations of your choice. To serve the loaf, spread the top and sides with frosting, and cut into slices to serve.

Broccoli Salad (from the Summer Barbecue chapter)

This easy, crisp, classic vegetable salad is a must at any summer barbecue, picnic, or pool party. This is an old recipe I’ve been making for over forty years. The flavors meld beautifully, and the fresh crispness of the veggies, the creaminess of the dressing, and the ease of making it ahead, make this recipe a winner in all categories.

prep time

15 minutes, plus at least 1 hour to chill

cook time

none

serves

8–10

Ingredients

  • 2 bunches of raw broccoli, cut into bite-sized florets (about 8 cups)
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 lb. crisp, crumbled bacon
  • ½ cup chopped, toasted pecans or walnuts
  • 1 cup golden or brown raisins
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  1. In a large bowl, mix the broccoli, onion, bacon, nuts, and raisins.
  2. In a small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise, sugar, and vinegar.
  3. Toss the dressing with the broccoli mixture. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Guy Fieri

I’ve been fasting pre-op so why am I watching Guy videos? Is it psychological? Anyway, thanks Gut…you’re great as usual.

Ben Watkins Has Passed Away and We All Grieve at Our Loss.

I was just scrolling through the news on my phone procrastinating doing some work when I saw a photo of Ben Watkins. I didn’t really need to scroll any further to know what that meant. Ben, who competed in “MasterChef Junior” three years ago, had been battling an extremely rare type of cancer at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. It’s the kind of place where if you have any chance of surviving, they’re the ones who’ll make sure it happens.

Photo by Leila Edwards.

He had been diagnosed with Angiomatoid Fibrous Histiocytoma. I mentioned above that it’s very rare–so rare that only one out of six people have been diagnosed with it.

I knew Ben and I knew his mother, Leila Edwards, who created lovely jewelry and who adored her son who was friends with my nephews, all of whom live in Miller Beach. My niece and her husband and family were friends with the Edwards-Watkins family.

Ben Watkins in his home kitchen making his special Oreo recipe. Photos by Leila Edwards, Ben’s mother.

As I’ve said before, I never met Ben’s father and Leila’s mother, Michael Watkins, but everyone I’ve ever talked to, described him as the nicest person. Which is what made what happened three years ago so baffling. He too was diagnosed with cancer and one morning took a gun and killed Leila and then himself. Ben was in the house but unharmed.

Ben went to live with his uncle and grandmother and the Miller Beach community raised a great deal of money to help with finances. As I mentioned he had competed on “MasterChef Junior” and had made it through several rounds, advancing each time but finally was sent home by Gordon Ramsay in a not very nice way. We were all aghast. How dare he. Our sweet Ben. Newspapers criticized the way Ramsay sent Ben packing. Ben was the type of kid who was totally likeable. When Ben was diagnosed with the cancer, Ramsay stepped up and donated $50,000 to his medical fund.

Photo by Leila Edwards.

Ben loved to cook, he started helping out in the kitchen when he was three and he liked creating his own recipes though sometimes, when I’d asked him how to make one of the dishes, he couldn’t remember the exact amounts and would have to do it again. He was a kid who got good grades, helped out in his parents restaurant in Miller Beach, competed in spell bowl, math bowl, chess club or also fixed broken bikes for kids in need through the Ken Parr Build a Bike program in Miller Beach. He wanted to be an engineer when he grew up. But alas, already facing so much sorrow and pain in his life, had to face more in the hospital as the tumors grew and grew. His pain may be gone now, but that of those who knew and loved him, including that of his uncle, Anthony Edwards and his grandmother Donna Edwards who took over his care after his parents died. I can’t even begin to fathom the depths of their sorrow and anguish.

Ben Watkins. Photo by Leila Edwards.

“We were praying for a different outcome,” Anthony Edwards told the Chicago Tribune shortly after his death which occurred earlier today. “But Ben’s lungs could no longer give him the air he needed to breathe. It’s been devastating.”

Photo by Leila Edwards.

Indeed.

Gordon ramsay tweeted today, “We lost a Master of @MastrChefJrFOX kitchen today. Ben you were an incredibly talented home” cook and even stronger young man. Your young life had so many tough turns but you always persevered. Sending all the love to Ben Watkins’ family with this terrible loss. Gx.”

I have shared this recipe before, Ben made it up and he was so proud of it so I will share it one more time.

“Our Ben went home to be with his mother Monday afternoon after a year-and-a-half battle with cancer,” wrote the Edwards in a statement. “Ben was and will always be the strongest person we know.”

Amen to that.

Ben Watkins’ Chocolate Chip Cookie and Oreo Brownie Bars

Cookie Layer:

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

¾ cup sugar

¾ cup brown sugar

2 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extracthttps://cad9106d0d6494498d2fa80cdc316a59.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

2 ½ cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

24 ounces chocolate chips

18 to 24 Double Stuf Oreos, crumbled

Mix butter with sugar until creamed. Add eggs and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl mix flour mixture and baking soda. Add to creamed butter. Fold in chocolate chips and spread evenly on the bottom of a greased 9×13-inch pan.

Spread crumbled Oreos evenly over the top of the chocolate chip cookie dough.

Brownie Layer:

4 ounces unsweetened Baker’s chocolate

¾ cup butter

2 cups sugar

3 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup flour

Place chocolate in microwave and melt. Melt butter, stir in chocolate and sugar. Stir in eggs one a time and vanilla. Add flour. Mix thoroughly. Spread evenly on top of chocolate chip cookie dough and Oreos.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes.

Barefoot Contessa’s Modern Comfort Food

“When I was a kid my mother would cut up hot dogs to add to canned split pea soup for me to eat,” Ina Garten tells me from the barn in West Hampton, New York where she creates and tests the recipes published in her cookbooks, including the latest “Modern Comfort Food” and on the her Food Network show Barefoot Contessa.

         I tell her that I ate so much split pea soup when I was a kid that my mother told me I was going to turn green. Garten laughs though it really isn’t very funny. It’s just the way she is. Polite and friendly, as if she and I are good friends rather me interviewing her in a spot where her phone gets very poor reception. That’s for sure. During the course of a 45-minute call, we get disconnected at least five times.

         But back to the split pea soup. When Garten was thinking up recipes for “Modern Comfort Food,” the 12th in her Barefoot Contessa series, it was one of the dishes she wanted to include. But not just any old split pea soup.

“My soup is from scratch and instead of hot dogs, I sauteed kielbasa,” she says. I love the way crispy sausage and the creamy soup contrast with each other.”

         Using her culinary magic, among the 85 recipes in her book she transforms the grilled cheese of childhood into Cheddar & Chutney Grilled Cheese and the frozen pot pies your mom kept in the freezer in case she was late getting home morph into Chicken Pot Pie Soup with Puff Pastry Croutons. Burnt hamburgers made by your dad the one time he tried to grill are now Smashed Hamburgers with Caramelized Onions.

         When I mention that I love her recipes because they always work and that often with celebrity cookbooks it’s just the opposite, she responds with a laugh, saying “ya’think?”

         Her recipes, on the other hand, are strenuously tested. It took her six years to perfect her recipe for Boston Cream Pie. She just couldn’t get it right until she finally found the exact flavor matches for the cake, chocolate glaze and pastry cream layers.

         Some, no make that most, of us would have given up or just said “good enough.” But not Garten which is why the Boston Cream Pie she hoped to put in two cookbooks ago didn’t make it until this one.

         “Sometimes it takes me a day to create a recipe that works just right, sometimes weeks or even months,” she says, noting that she loves getting up in the morning knowing she has a long list of recipes to test.

         She also has advice on how to use her recipes.

         “Do it once the way it’s written using the same ingredients, then you’ll know the way it is supposed to be,” she says, noting that someone once complained about one of her recipes not working and when she drilled down as to why, discovered that out of the seven ingredients called for, they didn’t use three. “It’s like someone saying the chocolate cake didn’t turn out and then they tell you they didn’t use any chocolate in it.”

Recipes courtesy of Modern Comfort Food: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. Copyright © 2020 by Ina Garten. Photography by Quentin Bacon. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Chicken Pot Pie Soup
Serves 6
3 chicken breasts, skin-on, bone-in (2½ to 3 pounds total)
Good olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter
5 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts (3 leeks) (see note)
4 cups chopped fennel, tops and cores removed (2 bulbs)
3 cups (½-inch) diced scrubbed carrots (5 medium)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon leaves
¼ cup Wondra flour
¾ cup cream sherry, divided
7 cups good chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 (2 × 3-inch) piece of Italian
Parmesan cheese rind
1 (10-ounce) box frozen peas
1 cup frozen whole pearl onions
¼ cup minced fresh parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Place the chicken on a sheet pan skin side up, rub the skin with olive oil, and
season generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 minutes, until a
thermometer registers 130 to 140 degrees. Set aside until cool enough to
handle. Remove and discard the skin and bones and cut the chicken in 1-inch
dice. Set aside.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium (11 to 12-inch) heavy-bottomed pot or
Dutch oven, such as Le Creuset, over medium heat. Add the leeks, fennel, and
carrots, and sauté over medium-high heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally,
until the leeks are tender but not browned.

Stir in the garlic and tarragon and cook for one minute. Sprinkle on the flour
and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add ½ cup of the sherry, the
chicken stock, 4 teaspoons salt, 1½ teaspoons pepper, and the Parmesan rind.
Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes.
Add the chicken, peas, and onions and simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Off
the heat, remove the Parmesan rind and add the remaining ¼ cup of sherry
and the parsley. Serve hot in large shallow bowls with two Puff Pastry Croutons
on top.

Note: To prep the leeks, cut off the dark green leaves at a 45-degree angle and
discard. Chop the white and light green parts, wash well in a bowl of water,
and spin dry in a salad spinner. Wet leeks will steam rather than sauté.

Puff Pastry Croutons -Makes 12 croutons
All-purpose flour
1 sheet of frozen puff pastry, such as Pepperidge Farm, defrosted (see note)
1 extra-large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon heavy cream, for egg wash
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
Lightly dust a board and rolling pin with flour. Unfold the sheet of puff pastry
on the board, dust it lightly with flour, and lightly roll the pastry just to smooth
out the folds.

With a star-shaped or fluted round cookie cutters, cut 12 stars, or rounds of
pastry and place them on the prepared sheet pan. Brush the tops with the egg
wash, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until puffed
and golden brown.

Defrost puff pastry overnight in the refrigerator. You want the pastry to be very
cold when you bake it. make ahead: Prepare the pastry cutouts and refrigerate.

Bake just before serving.

Boston Cream Pie
Makes one 9 – inch cake / serves 8
For the cake:
¾ cup whole milk
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon grated orange zest
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
3 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1½ cups sugar

for the soak:
¹⁄₃ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
¹⁄₃ cup sugar
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier

For the chocolate glaze:
¾ cup heavy cream
1¼ cups semisweet chocolate chips, such as Nestlé’s (7½ ounces)
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, such as Lindt, broken in pieces
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon instant coffee granules, such as Nescafé

Grand Marnier Pastry Cream (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Butter two 9-inch round baking pans, line
them with parchment paper, butter and flour the pans, and tap out the excess
flour. Set aside.

For the cake, scald the milk and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat
(see note). Off the heat, add the vanilla and orange zest, cover the pan, and set
aside. In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt and set
aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs
and sugar on medium-high speed for 4 minutes, until thick and light yellow
and the mixture falls back on itself in a ribbon. By hand, first whisk in the
warm milk mixture and then slowly whisk in the flour mixture. Don’t overmix!
Pour the batter evenly into the prepared pans. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, until
a toothpick comes out clean. Allow the cakes to cool in the pans for 15
minutes, then turn them out onto a baking rack, flipping them so the top sides
are up. Cool to room temperature.

For the soak, combine the orange juice and sugar in a small (8-inch) sauté pan
and heat until the sugar dissolves. Off the heat, add the Grand Marnier and set
aside.

For the chocolate glaze, combine the heavy cream, semisweet chocolate chips,
bittersweet chocolate, corn syrup, vanilla, and coffee in a heatproof bowl set
over a pot of simmering water. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon, just until
the chocolates melt. Remove from the heat and set aside for 25 to 30 minutes,
stirring occasionally, until the chocolate is thick enough to fall back onto itself
in a ribbon.

To assemble, cut both cakes in half horizontally. Place the bottom of one cake
on a flat plate, cut side up. Brush it with a third of the soak. Spread a third of
the Grand Marnier Pastry Cream on the cake. Place the top of the first cake on
top, cut side down, and repeat with the soak and pastry cream. Place the
bottom of the second cake on top, cut side up. Repeat with the soak and pastry
cream. Place the top of the second cake on top, cut side down. Pour the
ganache on the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides. Set aside for one hour,

Cooking in a different time: ‘Downton Abbey’ inspires a delicious look at Edwardian recipes

I was really sick with the flu last month and didn’t have much energy at all. When I finally could make it to the couch, I decided to finally figure out how to download Amazon Prime videos to my Kindle so I would have something to do.

It took like two seconds because all you have to do is click on the “watch” button but how was I to know it was that easy?

Anyway, I had always wanted to see the PBS series Downton Abbey because I love those Masterpiece Theatre English costume dramas. I’m still on the first season and wondering if Lady Mary is ever going to get around to saying yes to Matthew, the entitled heir to Downtown Abbey but I also love the busy kitchen and elegant dining room scenes—did you know that women were not allowed to serve food to the aristocrats, it was definitely a man’s job but we were allowed to cook it.

Now that I’m better, I’m interested in trying some of the recipes from “Edwardian Cooking: 80 Recipes Inspired by Downton Abbey’s Elegant Meals” by Larry Edwards (Arcade Publishing $19.95) with its anecdotes about the foods served at that time and recipes updated for our modern kitchens.

Those Edwardians knew how to eat and the book contains recipes for Edwardian Leg of Lamb, Lobster Pudding, Oyster Roll, Leek Pie, Downton Pheasant Casserole, Lemon Creme Soufflé, Raspberries in Sherry Sabayon Sauce, Stilton Chowder, Queen Victoria Rice Pudding and Downton Abbey Honey Cake. There was one for asparagus in a cider sauce that sounded very Southwest Michigan to me so I thought I would include it as well as another that seems so very British and of that time.

Asparagus in Cider Sauce

1 pound asparagus, trimmed if necessary

1 tablespoon butter

2 teaspoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/3 cup cider vinegar

2/3 cup heavy cream

1/4 teaspoon lemon juice

In a large saute pan, bring a few inches of water to a boil. Add the asparagus and cook 10 minutes or until tender, depending on the size. Drain the asparagus and set it aside. Discard the cooking liquid.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Stir in the flour, salt, black pepper and nutmeg until well combined. This is what is referred to as a seasoned roux (thickener).

Whisk the cider vinegar and whipping cream into the saucepan and whisk until the sauce begins to simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cook 5 minutes.

Stir in the lemon juice. Place the asparagus on a serving platter. Drape the sauce over the asparagus and serve.

Downton Abbey Honey Cake

2 eggs, separated

½ cup sugar

½ cup vegetable oil

½ cup honey

1-1/2 tablespoons very strong black coffee (espresso is fine)

2 cups flour

1-1/4 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest

¼ cup raisins

¼ cup minced dried apricots

¼ cup minced walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line bottom of 9 x 5 loaf pan with parchment paper.

In a mixer with a paddle attachment, beat egg yolks and sugar until light and pale and then beat in the oil, honey and strong black coffee.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and all spices.

With the mixer on a low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients just until a batter forms.

In a medium bowl, whisk egg whites until peaks form. Fold one third of the egg whites into the batter and then fold the remaining whites into the batter along with the orange zest, raisins, dried apricots and walnuts.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and even out.

Place the cake into the oven and bake 75 minutes or until the sides break away from the pan.

Remove cake from the oven and let cool in the pan 10 minutes.

Remove the cake from the pan and cool on a rack until ready to slice and serve.