Tuesday, December 28, 2010

And the Angels Sang...

As per my Christmas Wish List, I recieved a food processor. But I don't really know what to do with it. I haven't taken the time to read the manual yet, but I'm imagining it will be helpful during gardening season. I also see that there is a dough blade, so the labor of bread-making will be eased.

Congratulate me, friends, and tell me your favorite uses for your food processor.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Candy Making

For the last couple of posts, I just dash off a couple of quick thoughts, imagining that the NEXT time I post, I will really have the time to actually WRITE. But here's the thing: My kids are on Christmas break and I need to play the Wii with them and read to them and bake with them and crush them in Scrabble. I also, realistically, need to address Christmas cards and page through recipe books and dash to the store for the holiday baking supplies and then fly back to the store because I forgot the sour cream. You know how it is.

Holy crap, here is another example: I just now took a break in the middle of this post to make sure the Christmas cards got out in time. I recently got a teasing, but unwanted, comment from someone about not getting theirs until after Christmas, so I felt the burden of getting this done TODAY. Brilliantly, I thought I'd go south to my tiny hometown's post office, where there is never a line, to get my Christmas stamps. If I went north to my current larger town's post office, it would be no closer and I would for sure wait in a sizeable line. Great plan, right? Right, except that, true to the small town post office form, I found that they closed up shop over lunch. When I got there, it was 40 minutes away from the time they would re-open. So I went to the large P.O. and waited in that god-forsaken line. (Why, oh why is there not a bilingual postal worker at a counter at all times?)

Anyway, that's done and now I find myself dashing off another quick post with thoughts and pictures from our family's recent candy making endeavor. Nothing fancy, but these are usual treats from our Christmas kitchen in recent years.

English Toffee

1 c. butter
1 c. sugar
2 t. water
4 chocolate bars

In a heavy saucepot, heat butter, sugar and water, stirring often until sugar is absorbed by butter. I've seen several descriptions to mark the point at which to stop cooking.... until it changes from yellow to amber in color, until it reaches 300 degrees, the hard crack stage. The method I use is to look for that change in color and test the hard crack stage by dropping a bit into a glass of water and checking to see if it turns to hard candy.

Next, pour the hot mixture onto a buttered cookie sheet. (Note: I doubled the above recipe and it didn't quite fill the cookie sheet.)

Immediately place pieces of chocolate bar evenly over the hot mixture.

I found that by the time I had placed the chocolate on the far end of the sheet the chocolate closest to me was already melted and ready to spread. Use a spatula to spread the melted chocolate over the hot toffee.

Put in a cool place and, once hardened, break into irregularly-sized pieces.

Pretzel, Hershey Kiss & M&M Candies (I don't really know what they're called)
Equal numbers of bite-sized pretzels, Hershey's Kisses and red and green M&M's.
(As a side note, when I was a junior in high school, my beloved English teacher, Mr. Jordan, went down a rabbit trail with us in which we wondered whether the term "M&Ms" only applied to the candy in the plural form. Should a singular candy be referred to as, simply, an "M?" We wrote to the Mars company with our query and they responded, to our delight. Would you like to know the official answer? As it turns out, the name of the candy is actually "M&M's Chocolate Candies." That being the case, the singular form would be "an M&M's Chocolate Candy.")

Preheat your oven to 200 while you use your children as free labor to spread a layer of pretzels on a cookie sheet. Next,unwrap dozens (or hundreds) of the kisses and center each one on a pretzel. When the oven is warm, pop in the cookie sheet.

It doesn't take long to melt the kisses, maybe 4-6 minutes. Remove from the oven and press a festive M&M's Chocolate Candy into the center of each. Allow to cool and serve.

By the way, these candies might seem to fall into the category of candies that look pretty and festive, but which you don't actually like to eat. Not so. I really like the salty and the sweet together, the chocolate and the crunch. Yum.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cranberry Cordial

I remembered this recipe from last Christmas season on a friend's Facebook page. I never got around to it that winter, but I asked her to post again and I've got a batch brewing as we speak.

Cranberry Cordial
2 lbs. (8 cups) fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped
6 c. sugar
1 liter light rum

In a gallon jar, combine berries, sugar and rum and gently stir or shake to combine.

Store in a cool, dark place for 3-6 weeks, gently shaking every day. (I found it took several shakings to completely dissolve the sugar.)

Strain the berries. Don't throw them away! Serve them over ice cream or use them in other recipes.

Strain again through cheesecloth or coffee filter to remove all the seeds.

Serve. Or pour into decorative corked bottles to give as gifts.

I'm interested to see how this turns out, as I've never made it before. I didn't get it started in time to serve at any Christmas soiree, but I always entertain at New Years, so that's the plan.

I've also been mulling over starting a batch of Kombucha. Have you ever made it? Maybe I'll start it soon, so that I'll have one jug of 'booch and one of hooch!


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Pumpkin Bread Pudding

This is another dessert from The Pioneer Woman's throwdown with Bobby Flay. I tried it on Thanksgiving Day and we all really loved it and fought over the bowl scrapings of the Vanilla Bean Creme Anglaise. I made it again two days later for another Thanksgiving Dinner. It's definitely more complicated than my usual cooking, so it seems like it needs an occasion to warrant making it. Plus, it's impressively rich and one can't just go around eating desserts with nearly a dozen egg yolks, heavy whipping cream and four-ish cups of sugar every day and for no good reason.

I found that nearly every element of this dessert could be made ahead. The pumpkin bread, for instance, could be made several days in advance.
Pumpkin Bread Pudding
2 c. heavy cream
1 c. whole milk
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
6 large egg yolks
1/2 c. sugar
3 T pure maple syrup
1 c. pumpkin puree (I used butternut squash from the garden)
2 T bourbon
1 loaf pumpkin bread, cubed and toasted
Vanilla Bean Creme Anglaise, recipe follows
Spicy Caramel Apple Sauce, recipe follows

Preheat the oven to 325. Combine cream, milk, vanilla bean AND seeds in medium saucepan and bring to a simmer.

Meanwhile, whisk together egg yolks, sugar, maple syrup and pumpkin in a large bowl. Slowly whisk in the hot cream mixture until combined. Remove the vanilla pod. Add the bourbon and whisk. Here, Bobby says it should be strained into a clean bowl. My butternut puree was pretty smooth. I didn't strain and suffered no ill effects.

Scatter bread cubes in a buttered 9x13 pan and pour custard over all. Press down on the bread to make sure it completely submerges and wait about fifteen minutes before continuing with the recipe to allow time for the bread to soak up all that eggy, creamy goodness.

For best results, put this baking pan into a larger roasting pan and put tap water in the outer pan until the water level is halfway up the sides of the 9x13 pan. Bake about one hour, or until the edges of the pudding are puffy and the middle jiggles only slightly. Remove from oven and water bath and allow to cool at least 30 minutes before serving.

I like to serve it with some of the Spicy Caramel Apple Sauce drizzled fancily onto the dish, then spoon the bread pudding onto that. Finally, top with a generous portion of the delicious Vanilla Bean Creme Anglaise.

Spicy Caramel Apple Sauce

1 c. heavy cream
1/2 c. apple juice
1 star anise
A 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
4 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1/8 t. nutmeg
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. water
1 T apple cider vinegar
1 T apple schnapps

Combine cream, juice, anise, ginger, cloves, cinnamon sticks and nutmeg in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, but allow to steep for at least 20 minutes while you make the Vanilla Bean Creme Anglaise. Strain into a clean bowl.

Combine sugar, water and vinegar in a small saucepan and place over high heat without stirring until it's a deep amber color, about 8 minutes. Slowly whisk in the hot cream mixture a little at a time, whisking until it is smooth. Add the apple schnapps and cook 30 seconds longer. This sauce can be made up to 2 days in advance and refrigerated. Heat through before serving.

Vanilla Bean Creme Anglaise

2 c. half and half
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
5 large egg yolks
1/3 sugar

Bring the half and half and vanilla bean and seeds to a simmer in a medium saucepan.

Whisk eggs and sugar together until they reach the pale ribbon stage. This will help to prevent those chunks of cooked egg from appearing when you add the hot cream mixture. Slowly add the hot half and half, whisking constantly. Return to the pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. (Why a wooden spoon? Bobby doesn't say. His specificity without explanation is frustrating.) Allow to thicken until mixture easily coats the spoon.

Remove from heat. Strain into a bowl to remove bean pod and any errant bits of cooked egg. Set bowl over an ice bath and stir until cooled. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.

Lick the spoon. (That's my generous instruction to you, not Bobby's.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Pretty Way to Serve Salad

I know I'm supposed to be giving you the recipe for Pumpkin Bread Pudding, but I can't face it just yet. It's a more complicated recipe than my usual and I want to be able to focus on it better than I can at the moment. It was a ridiculously busy weekend. All good, mind you, but crazy for sure. My son's choir had concerts every evening of the weekend at the local college's Festival of Carols, where I was overcome by the beauty and wept and kissed like, I don't know - an Italian? instead of the rest of the stoic Germanic people there. We had our third Thanksgiving over the weekend in the big city three hours away (where half of my husband's family has moved over the years). The hostess graciously suggested that we bring salads and desserts, which she thought would travel better than the hot foods. I guess I'll share with you the easy, colorful dish I offered.

I made a lettuce salad, which had simple ingredients, but the assembly of the dish makes a nice impact. Served on a tray instead of a bowl, start with a bed of lettuce and add the ingredients you like in columns down the serving tray.

In this salad, I used broccoli, red onion, hard-boiled egg, radish, cheddar cheese, mushrooms, celery, tomato and black olives.

In addition to being different and attractive, I find it also allows picky eaters to avoid certain ingredients more easily than a regular tossed salad.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pumpkin Bread

Now the recipe I really want you to have is for Pumpkin Bread Pudding. That post is coming. But first we need a loaf of pumpkin bread. This recipe makes just one loaf, so why don't you double it? It stands on its own just scrumptiously. You can gobble one up while it's still warm and cube the other for this wonderful dessert.

Pumpkin Bread
4 T unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
1 3/4 c. flour
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. ground allspice
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/2 t. ground cloves
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. vegetable oil
8 oz. (scant cup) unsweetened pumpkin puree
2 large eggs
2/3 c. water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter or lightly spray the bottom and sides of a loaf pan.

In a small bowl, combine all the dry ingredients EXCEPT the sugar.

In a large mixing bowl, beat together softened butter, sugar and oil on high speed until light and fluffy, about one minute.

Add the pumpkin puree and beat until combined.

Add eggs, one at a time and mix JUST until incorporated. Do not overmix.

At low mixer speed, slowly add the dry ingredient mixture and water and mix until just combined.

Spread the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 60 to 75 minutes.

Allow to cool in the pan for ten minutes and then remove from pan to cool completely.

Stay tuned for the fabulous Pumpkin Bread Pudding recipe.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas Ornaments

Ava had her buddy Meiling over recently and we made the first Christmas cookies of the year. While we had the cookie cutters out, we made these simple ornaments.

First, mix equal parts applesauce and cinnamon. It forms a stiff dough.

Press it flat between two pieces of waxed paper. We used a rolling pin so that we would get a smoother surface. I also found that some of the thinner areas of dough didn't make a very durable ornament. Aim for about 1/2 inch thickness.

Take off the top layer of waxed paper and cut out any shape you like. When you are finished, use a toothpick to make a hole at the top.

These need to dry for anywhere from one to four days, depending on thickness. After that, use an ornament hook, string or ribbon through the hole to hang it on the tree. It smells great!

I think play dates should always include kitchen work, don't you?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How to Peel a Chestnut Easily

I found the chestnuts peeled most easily if softened a bit in the microwave first. In order to do this, first you must pierce each chestnut with a sharp knife. This allows the building pressure to escape without inter-appliance explosions startling you while you putter in the kitchen, causing you to drop bread puddings and scaring the dog out of her poor wits. This is a very important step. Please don't skimp on the hole-punching. Don't ask me how I know.

Microwave a small quantity on high for 2 minutes. It's best to do only groups of no more than 6-8. If you do greater quantities than that, the final chestnuts will likely cool before you get to them and the peeling won't be quite so easy.

A paring knife or small serrated knife will generally cut through the outer shell lickety split at this point. I found that sometimes the piercing in the shell opened a bit in the microwave, making it easy to use the knife to simply crack them open the rest of the way. By the last of the chestnuts I got to be quite expert at opening them and popping the meat out of the shell.

Perhaps more interestingly, I was looking online for some stock photos of a bunch of chestnuts, since I took pictures of the process, but not of the beautiful, untouched produce. What I found were several pictures of unharvested chestnuts in their natural environment. I had no idea that they grew in thistle-y pods, but probably my wise readers did. How fascinating. And how gorgeous.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

I Know I'm a Grown-Up Because...

...I was the one who made the holiday happen.

...I did it with an oven that failed to preheat on, of all days, Thanksgiving morning.

...I tried three new recipes simultaneously and did not spontaneously combust.

...the dishes all got done on time.

...I allowed the children to help and seldom raised my voice, even when Brooks let the egg whites that he was separating slop into the garbage, rather than save them for future use.

...I fell into bed exhausted that night and got up early the next day to start making Christmas happen.

...I love my little clan so much that it makes me want to do hard things for their pleasure.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Brining the Bird and Other Minor Details

OK. Let's go. Let's do as much as we can in advance so that we can enjoy the day ahead. First, let's brine the hell out of that bird. I've already posted The Pioneer Woman's favorite turkey brine recipe here, so I think what I'm doing in this post is just documenting my timing of the meal prep and deciding how I'll alter things for my purposes.

Now, P-Dub says her recipe is for a 20 pound bird. My turkey is not quite twelve. What I used was the peel of two oranges, 2 c. of apple cider, 5 qts. of water, 1 c. of salt, 1 1/4 c. brown sugar, 4 bay leaves, a fistful of rosemary, 2 T peppercorns and 3 cloves of garlic.

I boiled the brine on Monday, let it cool in the fridge until Tuesday, when I slapped the whole thing, turkey and all, in to a 2 gallon ziplock bag. Just to be on the safe side, I put the bag into the roasting pan. This made it easier to transport to my extra fridge, to be sure, but really, I just didn't trust the edges and corners of the bag to hold up. Lucky for me, because there are juices gathering in that roasting pan from the leaking bag! Can nothing work as it should?

By my calculation, I need to get the bird in the oven by 8:00 AM in order to eat around noon. Today I've assembled the dressing, combining bread, chicken, onion, celery and chestnuts, then slopping it up with a combination of egg and chicken broth.

I've put together all the elements of the dessert: Pumpkin Bread Pudding. I made the pumpkin bread, diced it up, made a pumpkin custard and poured it over all, made a caramel apple sauce for over the top and set it to keep in the fridge. (I taste-tested every one of those elements and cannot wait to try it all together!)

Finally, Sophia set the table and readied it for the big day.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Thanksgiving Plans and Ambition

SIL Sarah has on her Christmas List a cookbook by Ree Drummond, known in the blogosphere as The Pioneer Woman. I checked out her website after seeing the book in the store and now I'm totally mad that people have kept her a secret from me all these years. She is my soul mate. She grew up affluent middle class on the 7th green of a golf course. She fled to LA for college and had made up her mind that her future would consist of city dwelling, little black dresses and Thai food. Instead, she met and fell in love with a rugged cowboy with a ranch an hour and a half from her hometown. She now lives on this isolated ranch, where they homeschool their four children, and manages this fantastic blog, now website. OK, her background isn't anything like mine, but I like her writing style and her cooking style is not too far from mine... very meat and potatoes.

Expect a few Pioneer Woman-related posts coming up. Just this week, Bobby Flay of The Food Network had a "throwdown" with her in which they each prepared an entire Thanksgiving dinner, which was judged and one of them was declared the winner.

This weekend, I will prepare her Favorite Turkey Brine as I find myself preparing an entire Thanksgiving dinner on my own. It turns out I don't have any family dinners until Saturday, leaving Thursday wide open and available for culinary experimentation. I'll have Dad over and maybe another odd family member (insinuation intended) or two.

But maybe I can get someone else to bring the mashed potatoes. I just don't like that job.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Kimchi - Sort Of

What follows is a not-so-successful recipe attempt. But first, a story.

My father-in-law likes radishes.

My (brace yourself) husband's brother's wife's friend's mother is a Korean-American who grows giant Asian radishes for the purpose of making a favorite Korean dish, kimchi. Knowing FIL's love for adorable little American radishes, Sarah asked for a big ol' honkin' expat radish from the Kim family to give the man as a joke. The radish was shared, the joke was played and then the radish was headed to the trash can.

The trash can! Can you believe it? I rescued the poor dear and vowed to find a use for him. Two Facebook friends pointed me to a recipe for kimchi, found here . I decided to go for it. Throwing away perfectly good produce because the joke is over is a bad idea.

Trying to follow the recipe, I got as far as this and then I started having problems. I had the will and the drive, but not the urban Asian Food supermarket required. I call this picture Still Life with Radish and a Boatload of Garlic.

The first three ingredients were attainable enough, but then shrimp packed in a Korean brine? That's OK, we'll leave it out. Brooks is allergic anyway. And then there was Korean powdered red pepper? That's just not at my small town supermarket. There was some other spicy looking thing in the Asian aisle of my market, and I bought that, but by this time I just knew whatever I was making was never going to look like any kimchi that would be recognized by Eaters of Kimchi.

My personal health standards also did not allow me to leave it on the counter for 3-4 days before eating. I covered it and put it in the fridge.

I have do say, it was interesting to get some of those strong flavors in my mouth. Mike thought so, too. It was very garlicky and very spicy. I've seen other directions which instruct to cut up the radish thin like cole slaw. I think that would have improved the texture for me. But none of us really feel like we should fix it again, given another seven pound radish falling into our laps.

All week, as I've been working on this post, I've kind of wondered what I thought the point was, if I couldn't really recommend it and hadn't made it precisely. But I still think processes like these are gratifying for the purpose of trying something new, trying something from a culture not easily found in my area, making substitutions where you must and seeing if you can turn out something new and great. I really liked the Process, even if we didn't like the Product and I wanted you to know about it.

Have you had any similar experiences?

Monday, November 8, 2010

I Have a Serious Problem....

...and his name is Spicy Tuna Roll. A few years ago, a new supermarket was raised in our little town. It is large, slick and seems to offer fancier stuff than the other markets in town. The first time I visited the new store I felt like I was in Disneyland. Here is the best part of what they offer: a variety of sushi, made fresh every morning, available in the cold case.

So well-known is my obsession with sushi, my best birthday gift this year (from my smart sister-in-law) was this in a service for four:

Look how saucey my boyfriend Wasabi looks in his soy sauce jaccuzi:

Also this:

...which prettily and helpfully looks like this on the inside:

And so I think, "Yes. I really must learn to make my own." And so my eye lands on things in the Asian food aisle in the supermarket that I feel I must have. Hey! seaweed wraps! I'll just snatch up some of those for when I make sushi. And sesame seeds! I'll need some of those. And wasabi? Well, that really just needs to be a household staple, I think.

And there they sit. Because, really, it now comes down to the raw fish. And this scares me. Ordinarily, I think of anything made in the home as highly superior to anything found in the supermarket, but in this case....I feel unqualified, I suppose, for handling and serving raw fish. It's not the squeamish factor, it's really just cluelessness on how this could possibly be OK. It's probably like the job of getting the candle wax out of the Christmas tablecloth, which took me until summer to face, so sure was I that it would take forever and still not be right. It turned out to take five minutes and looked beautiful in the end. Anyway, it seems like a big, hopeless job like candle wax or barf carpet, and it makes me not even look at the instructions in the "cook" book seriously. I'd rather have a buddy talk me through it reassuringly. Have any of you ever made your own sushi?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

I had such a fun Halloween. In our little town, when Halloween lands on a Sunday, the festivities happen on Saturday. Ava and I mostly had the day to ourselves, as Michael took The Big Ones to participate in a local chess tournament. We had a nice day of some productivity at home and some fun away. Horseback riding lesson. A trip to Hobby Lobby. Pumpkin carving.

Ever the Bunny Hugger, she wanted a cuddly sort of Jack-O-Lantern. But the way she kept dictating the face seemed much more human and much less furry.

We put shaggy, long ears on the side so that you would know it was a dog. A St. Bernard, to be exact. Can you see it?

When The Big Ones came home we were ready to leave for Tricks and Treats. I suppose traditionally, one just goes to the neighborhood doors, asking for candy. But we always get in the car. For one thing, we have family members across town who expect to see the kids in their Halloween finery. For another, we happened upon such a dear little neighborhood in which to trick-or-treat.

This is the street on which the girls go to school. It is what some call a Cathedral Steet because of the way the tree branches rise up on either side and meet vaultingly overhead. In October, I can think of few prettier places.

Aside from its beauty, it's a "neighbor" - hood in the truest sense. Most of the houses are about 100 years old, all with a front porch. People come out on their front porches with their giant bags of candy, turn their porch lights on and wait for the onslaught.

Some even join in with their own dress-up craziness.

This neighborhood is also within blocks of the local college campus. A few of the old homes serve as rentals that house some of the students. And some of THEM even wanted to be a part of it all.

Really, there was no end to the adorability. (Is that a word? It totally should be.)

We saw big boys playing football in the street. We saw friends and classmates. We saw great costumes.

Three blind mice.

Nancy Drew.

A scarecrow.

We even heard someone playing Dixieland on the clarinet. One year someone had a three-piece bluegrass band on his porch.

A good time was had by all.

Anyway, a recipe, if you can call it that... Certainly, it's a tradition.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Have your husband and willing children sift through the pumpkin muck to seperate seeds from membrane. Retrieve about 1 1/2 c. This will take more than one pumpkin. I always boil them briefly to begin the cooking process and to clean them up. Drain them and slam a tablespoon or two of butter into the pot, along with 1/2 t. of salt. The butter will melt and coat the seeds, bringing along the salt for seasoning. Put them on a cookie sheet and into a preheated 300 degree oven. Leave them there for 30-40 minutes, until lightly browned, tossing them every 10 or 15 minutes.