The Cowgirl Chef: Treat Mom to a leisurely drive on her special day, capped with a picnic

PARIS -- This year, I'll be back home in Texas for Mother's Day, and I plan to surprise Mom with two things: a batch of fresh-baked croissants for breakfast (I've been practicing for two months) and a Sunday drive to nowhere in particular, with a box lunch of some of her favorites. Just like we used to do.

Growing up in Denton, my parents loved taking Sunday drives as much as my brother and I disliked them. My dad would usually announce his intentions for a car ride right after we finished our waffles, before my brother and I could scatter to our friends' houses. We would be summoned to buckle up in our usual spots in the family Buick station wagon and aimlessly drive around North Texas -- or make the hour and a half journey to Ardmore, Okla., to visit my grandparents, which is more of a destination.

Even then, this seemed like cheating. In my book, real Sunday drives are about not knowing where you're going. The fun is in the discovery of someplace new. Done right, the ride itself becomes one big adventure. No GPS, no Googling on your iPhone. In fact, phones-off should be a modern-day Sunday drive rule.

I'm not sure how the notion of "Sunday drives" began, but I suspect it came along about the same time other car-driven businesses were taking off, like drive-in movies and hamburger joints with carhops on skates so you never had to leave the comfort of your vehicle.

I thought Sunday drives were something particular (and peculiar) to my family, because I didn't know anyone else who was forced to get in the car with their parents for no reason at all and just drive around. What could be more embarrassing to a teenager?

As it turns out, we weren't the only ones cruising the countryside eating Stuckey's pecan logs and playing the Volkswagen game. A friend of mine who grew up in Nebraska told me recently that his father also used to take Sunday drives, but in his family, his dad would choose only one of the children to go with him, so it was an extra-special event. Even farther from Texas, my boyfriend Xavier's family used to take Sunday drives outside of Paris, and it's still one of his favorite things to do.

It's now one of mine, too. Maybe Sunday drives are one of those things that you have to grow up to appreciate. Whether I'm in Paris or back home in North Texas, I love the idea of relaxing behind the wheel -- or in the passenger's seat -- and instead of the highway, taking the small roads through the countryside and straight into towns I've never heard of before. Because there's always a great junk store or hamburger place (or bistro, depending which side of the pond you're on) just waiting to be discovered.

Pepper-cheese straws

Makes about 1 dozen

9 ounces frozen puff pastry

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Fleur de sel

Freshly cracked black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

2. Roll out the puff pastry as thin as you can into a rectangle about 10 inches by 14 inches. Evenly sprinkle the cheese, fleur de sel and pepper over the dough and, with a rolling pin, roll this into the dough as much as you can. With a pizza wheel, cut the dough into 1-inch-wide strips. Give each strip a few twists and lay them on the cookie sheet. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until brown and crispy.

Nutritional information per serving: 157 calories, 11 grams fat, 10 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 10 milligrams cholesterol, 112 milligrams sodium, trace fiber, 65 percent of calories from fat.

Eggplant-artichoke bread salad

Makes 4 servings

2 medium eggplants

Olive oil

Sea salt and pepper

Half a baguette

10 sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil, drained and finely chopped

10 grilled artichoke hearts in oil, drained

5 fresh basil leaves, chopped

¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes

A big splash balsamic vinegar

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and line a cookie sheet with foil. Toss the eggplant with a good amount of olive oil (this’ll depend on how large the eggplants are, but generally I use 4 to 5 tablespoons total), sea salt and pepper, and spread out on the cookie sheet. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes or until the edges start to brown, flipping halfway through.

2. Tear bread into 1-inch pieces (you can slice them if you want them to be the same size, but I prefer the tear method because it’s easier), and toss on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Drizzle olive oil on the croutons and toss them around with your hands. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, keeping a close eye on them, until they’re crispy.

3. Assemble the salad: Put the eggplant pieces, croutons, tomatoes, artichoke hearts, basil and red pepper flakes in a large bowl and toss. Splash the vinegar on top, toss again and taste. This is great warm, but just as lovely cold or at room temperature. It’s best after it has had a few hours to sit and let the flavors mingle.

Nutritional information per serving: 345 calories, 9 grams fat, 59 grams carbohydrates, 12 grams protein, no cholesterol, 535 milligrams sodium, 14 grams fiber, 23 percent of calories from fat.

Salmon and spinach tarts

Makes 5 to 6 4-inch tarts

2¼ cups flour

½ teaspoon sea salt

2/3 cup butter, cold, cut into tiny pieces

1 egg yolk

About ½ cup ice water

1 (7-ounce) salmon fillet

Olive oil

Sea salt and pepper

2 leeks, white part only

7 ounces fresh spinach, washed

Pinch cayenne

Pinch garam masala

1/8 teaspoon lemon zest

3 eggs

¾ cup milk

Pinch nutmeg

About 1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped

1. Preheat the oven to broil and get out your small tart molds.

2. Make the dough by whisking together the flour and the salt. Working quickly, either with a pastry cutter or a food processor, cut in the butter only until it looks like small pebbles (if you work this until it’s uniform, the butter will get too warm and your dough won’t puff).

3. Add the egg yolk and half of the ice water, then slowly add just enough additional water for the dough to come together when you press it between your fingers. It should still appear a bit crumbly. Pour the dough out onto a long piece of plastic wrap, mash it into a round disk, wrap it and put it in the fridge for an hour (or the freezer for a bit less than that — I often do this when I’m in a hurry).

4. While the dough’s cooling, cook the salmon: Put the fish on a foil-lined cookie sheet. Drizzle a little olive oil on both sides and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Slide it into the oven and cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until firm. Be sure and set the timer — you don’t want to overcook this.

5. Add a drizzle of olive oil to a large skillet along with the leeks and some salt and pepper. Turn the heat to medium and let cook until the leeks begin to soften, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the spinach, cayenne, garam masala and lemon zest and cook just until the spinach wilts, about a minute or two. Transfer this to a colander so the water can drain.

6. When the dough is chilly and firm, put it on a floured surface. Roll out the dough, cut out round pieces just slightly bigger than the size of the muffin tin, and very gently press each piece into tart molds. Then put them in the freezer for at least 15 minutes or in the fridge for about 30, or until the dough is firm (so it won’t fall in on itself when you get to the next step).

7. Turn the oven to 375 degrees to half-bake the crusts. Put them on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the crust turns a light brown.

8. Mix the eggs, milk, nutmeg, and some sea salt and pepper.

9. Put about a tablespoon of the spinach-leek mixture into each tart pan, and about the same amount of salmon. Pour the eggy mixture over this and top with dill. Bake for 40 minutes or until the tarts are set. Eat right away or at room temperature.

Nutritional information per tart, based on 5: 551 calories, 31 grams fat, 46 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams protein, 259 milligrams cholesterol, 584 milligrams sodium, 3 grams fiber, 51 percent of calories from fat.

Chai spice cookies

Makes about 3 dozen

For the cookies:

2 1/3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground ginger

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon cloves

½ teaspoon cardamom

¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper

1½ sticks (¾ cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup light brown sugar

½ cup molasses (not blackstrap)

1 egg

For the icing:

1 cup powdered sugar

1 egg white

About 1 tablespoon lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper.

2. Sift together all of the dry ingredients and set aside.

3. Beat the softened butter until it’s smooth and fluffy. Add the brown sugar and molasses and beat this for a couple of minutes. Add the egg and mix until combined, about 1 minute.

4. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add flour mixture just until it’s incorporated (don’t overmix or you’ll end up with tough cookies).

5. Put the dough in a bowl and refrigerate for at least an hour.

6. When you’re ready to bake the cookies, take the dough out of the fridge and form golf ball-size balls. Put them on the prepared cookie sheets, leaving 2 to 3 inches between each cookie — these like to spread. Gently press down the tops of the balls. Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until they’re mostly set around the edges and start to show cracks. Let them cool completely on a rack.

7. While the cookies are cooling, make the Royal icing: Whisk the powdered sugar with the egg white and lemon juice in a medium bowl. You’ll want this to be thick and glossy. If it’s too thin, add more sugar. If it’s too thick, add a bit more lemon juice until you reach the right consistency. Drizzle a spoonful over the cookies and let it harden before storing in an airtight container (I slip a sheet of parchment between each layer).

Nutritional information per cookie: 107 calories, 4 grams fat, 17 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 16 milligrams cholesterol, 107 milligrams sodium, trace fiber, 34 percent of calories from fat.

— Adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours

Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef. Read her blog and watch her cooking videos on You can also follow her on Twitter: @cowgirlchef