28 December 2009

Bread for a winter's night

When it's cold outside, and all you want is a warm bowl of soup and huge chunk of bread, this is a recipe for you.

It comes from my friend Dina, and although she gave me the recipe a while back, I didn't really start making it until a few weeks ago. I am dumbfounded at how easy it is to make. And it doesn't involve any rising or resting time. In fact it's some strange cross between a quick bread and a yeast bread.

It is yummy, buttery and delicious. I want to try it soon as muffins, but haven't had the chance yet. And I think some sharp cheddar cheese added to the batter could be heavenly. But making it just as this recipe suggests is plenty good. Dina suggests using a light beer, although thanks to the dark, seasonal beers Seth likes, I've used a couple of different varieties, all with tasty results.

So bake this bread up alongside a soup or stew, and I guarantee your family won't be disappointed.

Dina's Beer Bread

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
12-ounce beer
1/4 cup butter, melted

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Add beer and mix. Pour into greased pan and bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees. Half way through the cooking time, remove bread and pour melted butter over top. Return to oven and continue baking. Cool slightly before slicing.

21 December 2009

Thank you, Norma

After the last post about Aunt Joan's Molasses Crinkles, I got a note from an old college professor, Norma Wilson.

Norma probably has more special meaning to me than she even knows. She was the one who encouraged me to apply for a position on the campus newspaper staff. In her writing lab I learned things I'd never heard of before like search engines (come on folks, it was 1998) and how to turn an interview into a written piece. It sounds so silly writing this that these would be things someone would teach you, but she did. And out of all of my college professors, I rank her up there pretty high in terms of the skills she taught me, both about newspapers and life.

I did land that job at the campus newspaper, but most importantly, I met this guy who work there who was nerdy cute with his glasses and huge sideburns. Turns out I must have been nerdy cute to him, too. We dated, moved across the country together, got married and are living happily (yes, we have our bad days, but give us some perspective, folks) ever after.

Norma, I thank you.

But I also thank her for reminding me that one year I brought her some of my mom's Peanut Butter Cup Cookies. In that note she sent last week, she told me that she still makes them every year at Christmas. So perhaps my cookie recipe will offer up some of what I owe her. Of course, I do hope a heavy dose of gratitude settles my debt.

My mother has made these cookies for as far back as I can remember. I've seen similar versions with chocolate kisses, but I've not seen anyone else create this combination. If you like peanut butter and chocolate, you can't go wrong. My mom always made them with the store-bought refrigerated cookie dough that comes in logs. That made it super easy to bake the cookies. I can't seem to find peanut butter cookie dough at the store any more, so I made my own. The only special tool you need is a mini-muffin tin.

The one thing you need to know is that you need all of your peanut butter cups unwrapped before the cookies come out of the oven. And be careful, it's hard not to eat one or two while you unwrap a few dozen!

Peanut Butter Cup Cookies
Cookie Dough recipe adapted from Better Homes & Gardens Cook Book

makes two dozen

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
Wax paper

24 Reese's Mini Peanut Butter Cups, unwrapped

In a large mixing bowl beat the butter and peanut butter with an electric mixer for about 30 seconds or until combined. Add the granulated sugar, brown sugar, baking soda and baking powder. Beat until combined. Beat in the egg and vanilla until combined. Slowly add flour, combining as you go. Lay a large sheet of wax paper flat and dump the dough onto the paper. Using the paper to keep your hands from sticking to the dough, roll the dough into a log roughly 12 to 14 inches long. Chill for one hour or freeze for later use. Using a non-stick spray, coat your mini-muffin tin. Slice the dough into roughly 3/4-inch discs. Quarter each disc and drop one of those quarters into each muffin hole. Bake at 375 degrees for about 7 minutes or until the cookies are puffed and slightly browned. Remove from the oven and immediately stuff the unwrapped peanut butter cups into the middle of each cookie, leaving the entire cookie in the tin. Let the cookies rest for about 15 minutes and then carefully remove them from the tin and place on a cooling rack. Either refrigerate or let stand uncovered long enough for the chocolate in the cookies to harden once again. Store in an airtight container.

10 December 2009

A cookie to remember

Really great recipes don't come from fancy French restaurants. Nor do we read them out of a book. And, of course, great recipes don't appear on the backs of bags of flour or chocolate chips.

Great recipes have a history. A way of connecting us to another moment in time. Sometimes it's a moment we only dream about, and other times it's a moment that is very real. That's where my dear friend Bonnie comes in. If I didn't have a picture or two to prove it, I might have thought she was my imaginary friend at a time when I so desperately needed one.

We met when we were both young reporters at a newspaper in a dying mill town on the Columbia River. We found a sense of camaraderie in that we were both there just for the job, she sneaking away to Seattle every weekend by train to see her boyfriend and me back to the town 40 miles away where my then-fiance and I had rented a little house.

We had mid-day lunches and after-work drinks. She loves to travel, is a fabulous writer and enjoys cooking and food. Seth and I celebrated a Fourth of July in her little apartment with her and her boyfriend. And she spent an entire night devoted to me and Seth, picking us up at the airport at about midnight after our wedding, and then turning around and driving us there once again at about 6 a.m. the next day. After about a year working together we went our separate ways. She started a fantastic journey with her husband that started in Iowa and has landed them in Amsterdam. We've kept up over the years through email and Christmas cards, and this spring, I am so excited for her that her first book will be published.

One day while we were both working at that little newspaper, she brought in a plate full of molasses cookies and set them on the table next to the staff mailboxes, where we put anything that was a free-for-all. She called them Aunt Joan's Molasses Crinkles, and with one bite I was in love. I'd never had a molasses cookie before, and I loved the gently sweet crunch. She gave me the recipe, and I made them that same year. I was so proud of myself for making a cookie other than the ubiquitous chocolate chip.

I still like to make this cookie at the holidays. I made about six dozen of them recently to take a neighborhood children's choir event. While I rolled the dough into balls and tossed them in sugar, I thought about Bonnie. I wondered what she was doing all the way in Amsterdam. I doubt that Bonnie and I will ever work in the same cubicle farm again or live in the same city even. But that's OK with me as long as we continue to write to each other. And I'll make her Aunt Joan's Molasses Crinkles every Christmas, always remembering how fabulous it is that I have this little recipe to connect me to a friend, no matter where we're at in the world, and maybe she's making one of my recipes and thinking the same thing.

Aunt Joan's Molasses Crinkles

¾ cup shortening or unsalted butter (shortening for softer cookies, butter for slightly chewier)
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
¼ cup molasses

2 ¼ cup flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon cloves

¼ teaspoon salt
Granulated sugar to roll cookies

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cream shortening (or butter) and brown sugar. Add egg and molasses; mix well. In a separate bowl, sift together remaining ingredients. Blend dry with wet and refrigerate dough for 1 hour. Once the dough is chilled, hand-roll it into nickel- or quarter-sized balls. Roll the balls in granulated sugar to coat, then place on baking sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes.

07 December 2009

Too much pumpkin can't be bad

I wanted to start this out by telling you that if you haven't read or heard me talk about marshmallows, we've been out of touch. I had so much fun making them last week, and then I had even more fun sharing them with neighbors and friends.

So, other than making marshmallows, I've been cooking with a lot of pumpkin lately. I knew it, but when Seth mentioned it, I knew the jig was up. He said it reminded him of the attack of asparagus that came upon us last May. He said I managed to get it into everything, serving the slender greens for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I won't eat asparagus when it's not in season, so, I figure, I might as well get my fill considering how quickly it comes to a close each spring. But the pumpkin has been coming from a can. Just plain old canned pumpkin puree, and while there's no season for the canned foods, it just seems like a winter treat to me. Plus, it turns out that pumpkin can be added to a ton of other dishes, boosting fiber and some great vitamins. In fact the vet has ordered us to top the dog's kibble with it once a day to give him a bit more fiber. Yes, I know, more than you wanted to know. Turns out that Jasper loves pumpkin, too. Or at least he doesn't throw it on the floor and then applaud his efforts like he does with peas.

So, thanks to Wiley and Jasper, we've got pumpkin in the fridge all the time. And I recently added it, along with some currants, to my biscuit dough and turned them into scones. It was pretty tasty and a quick breakfast. As I've mentioned with biscuits, you can make these up ahead of time, freeze them unbaked and then bake them off when you need.

Recipes like this can come in handy when you've either got guests in town or you just like to have a little something to make a morning feel a bit more special.

Pumpkin Currant Scones

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for working with dough

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar (depending on your sweet tooth)
1/2 cup butter, cold, cubed
2/3 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
handful of dried currants
brown sugar

In a food processor combine dry ingredients and cubed butter. Mix, pulsing until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. If you do not have a food processor, use a pastry blender to combine ingredients. Dump flour and butter mixture into a mixing bowl and add milk and pumpkin. Combine with a spoon and add currants. Turn out dough onto well-floured surface. Work dough into a ball and use a rolling pin to roll dough out, keeping it in a circle to about 3/4 to 1 inch thick. Using a knife, bench scraper or pizza cutter, cut the circle of dough in half. Then cut each half into thirds, ending up with six triangular shapes. Dip cut scone tops and bottoms in melted butter and transfer to baking sheet. Sprinkle tops with brown sugar. Place scones in freezer for at least five minutes (I place the entire baking sheet in there). Bake biscuits in 450 oven for about 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown. Or, to store frozen, freeze scones, making sure they do not touch and store in an airtight container. Allow to sit out about 15 minutes at room temperature before baking.

04 December 2009

Marshmallow heaven

With this post comes an apology to my dear friend Dina. You see, a few weeks ago, I got it in my head that I was going to make marshmallows. I've come across a recipe or two, and it sounded easy enough.

Well, I was off to babysit her two boys one night recently, and I thought I'd give a whirl at her place, thinking the kiddos would like it. So, with three little boys running around her kitchen, I proceeded to get a gooey, corn syrup and sugar mess on just about everything, including the kids. Lucky for her I got it cleaned up before she got home. Unlucky for her, I left a pie plate full of a sticky glob of white sugar that couldn't be chiseled out of the pan by a miner.

So, Dina, I'm sorry. Now, to redeem myself, her boys will find some treats on their doorstep soon.

Thanks to my neighbor Olga, I got my hands on a Martha Stewart recipe for marshmallows. It's not that different from the one I tried previously, but the method has a much better explanation of how to handle this tacky (as in sticky, folks) candy. And while I was watching the mixer whir last night, I remembered back to Dina telling me that she did get a bite or two out of the batch I'd left her, and she said it reminded her of S'mores.

How fun would it be to get a treat in winter that tasted like a S'more? Very fun. So, after cutting my marshmallow mass into 1-inch cubes, I dunked them in chocolate and then graham cracker crumbs. I also dunked a few in crushed peppermint.

If this doesn't get me redemption, I'm not sure what will. The S'mores ones are a little bite of summer campfire in the middle of winter, and the peppermint ones are a taste of holiday fun.

You don't need any special tools, just a stand mixer and a pizza cutter. Make the marshmallow the night before (it needs to dry out over night) and then get the kids involved to decorate. You can use cookie cutters to cut out shape, although I found using a pizza cutter yielded the best results.

From Martha Stewart

4 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups water
3 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, plus additional for rolling

Oil an 11 x 17-inch Pyrex baking dish with vegetable oil. Line the dish with lightweight aluminum foil, and lightly coat the foil with more oil.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer, soften the gelatin with 3/4 cup of the water.

Place the sugar, corn syrup, the remaining 3/4 cup water, and the salt in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat until the syrup reaches 234 to 240 degrees, or the soft-ball stage, on a candy thermometer.

With the whisk attachment of the mixer at full speed, beat the hot syrup slowly into the gelatin until mixture is very stiff, about 15 minutes. Beat in the vanilla. Pour the mixture into the foil-line dish and smooth the top with an oiled spatula. Allow the mixture to rest, uncovered, at room temperature 10 to 12 hours.

Using a fine sieve, sprinkle the confectioners' sugar onto a cutting board. Turn the stiffened marshmallow mixture out onto the sugar, and using a small, lightly oiled cookie cutter, cut into shapes. Be sure to dip the cute edges of the marshmallows into confectioners' sugar to prevent sticking.

*My notes: I used a sheet tray lined with parchment paper that had been lightly oil and then sifted with confectioners' sugar. Then, once inverted, I cut away the edges to get a clean shape. Using a pizza cutter, I cut strip and then cubes, yielding about 80 cubes. I tossed the cubes in a bowl with powdered sugar about 10 at a time to coat, so they would not stick to each other. Then, using a double boiler, I melted chocolate chips. Then I dunked one side of each cube into the chocolate and then into fine graham cracker crumbs and peppermint crumbs (separately).

01 December 2009

Chutney for me

If you, too, are one of those cooks who reads a great recipe, thinks, "I'll have to try that," and then immediately forgets you ever read it, listen up.

I'm going to tell you to do something. First, read this recipe. Then, go make it. In a couple of weeks, you'll thank me.

I came across this recipe for Pear and Currant Chutney about a month ago while thumbing through an old Saveur Magazine. I read through the recipe, it sounded simple enough, and all I needed to pick up was some brandy. I've never made chutney before, but after this experience, I can happily tell you that it's ridiculously easy. Just cook down a few ingredients, cool and place in a jar. You don't actually process it (as in canning), you just pop the lid on and stick it in the fridge. It will be ready in one week and can be stored for up to four weeks. The longer you give it to ripen, the more the flavor develops.

Pear and Currant Chutney simmers on the stovetop for about an hour.

This batch made enough to fill three 8-ounce jars. I wanted to do them separately, so I could taste them at different stages of ripeness. And another reason? The small jars are the perfect size for gifting. Keep a few in the fridge for a quick holiday appetizer, too. Pile some of the chutney atop a wheel of brie and serve with crackers. Simple and tasty. It also tasted delicious with our Thanksgiving turkey.

Once cooked, the chutney is placed in jars to cool and then store for up to four weeks in the refrigerator.

OK, go to the kitchen now. Make it today, and it will be ready just in time for the holiday gathering season!

Pear and Currant Chutney over Brie with Homemade Rosemary Crackers.

Pear and Currant Chutney
Saveur, November 2004

Allow this chutney to ripen in the refrigerator for up to four weeks; it improves with age.

1 cup dried currants
6 tablespoons pear brandy*
4 bosc pears, cored and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 ribs celery, cut into 1/4 inch pieces
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 to 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
3"-3 1/2" piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
Pinch cayenne

Put currants and brandy into a medium saucepan and simmer over medium heat until currants are plump and have absorbed most of the liquor, about seven minutes. Add pears, celery, sugar, lemon juice, ginger and cayenne and stir well. Return to a simmer, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until pears are very soft and translucent and juices are thick and syrupy, about 1 hour.

Put chutney into a clean jar with a tight fitting lid; set aside to cool. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve at room temperature.

* Pear brandy is expensive, and I couldn't find it in a small bottle, so I substituted regular brandy, which seemed to work well.

30 November 2009

To be thankful

Despite having all of my Christmas decorations up, it is the last day of November. So, before we start singing carols, I just have a bit more Thanksgiving to share.

But first, I wanted to mention that I will be posting several Christmas recipes in the next couple of weeks. I always love to hear about other family cooking and eating traditions, so please don't be shy. I'd love to hear yours. I will be traveling in the later part of the month, so I'll try to get several good posts in before that.

Now, back to Thanksgiving. Our dinner was lovely. Good food, good wine and good company. The kiddos were mostly interested in my homemade maple ice cream and my friend Susan's delicious apple pie, but who could blame them? We were blessed to share our meal with friends and a little family, a new tradition since my cousin's arrival in the Northwest. He's the man behind Converging Creeks Farm.

The reason I want to write about Thanksgiving now is a form of encouragement -- both for me and you. I am making a point of taking all of the recipes, magazine photos and newspaper clippings that inspired me for our meal and putting them in one place. I'm also making a few notes on recipe cards, especially those that are pulled out only on holidays. My hope is that I can return to this file next November and have a great place to start planning the next Thanksgiving.

So, I'll get myself started. Here is our menu. Several of the recipes were posted earlier this month, and still a few will come soon. I can't wait to share the Pear and Currant Chutney recipe, which I'm hoping to get to later today.

As soon as I finish this post, I'm going to turn on Bing Crosby's White Christmas. It just doesn't feel like the holiday season without it!

Thanksgiving 2009

Pear and Currant Chutney over Brie with Homemade Crackers

Cheddar Cubes, Swiss Slices and Red Grapes for the Kiddos


Converging Creeks Baby Lettuces with Golden Sauteed Mushrooms, Walnuts and Blue Cheese

Cheddar and Chive Mashed Potatoes

Converging Creeks Butternut Squash Curry Mash

Grandma Pat's Cornbread Stuffing

Rosemary Potato Rolls

Turkey Stock Gravy

Zenger Farms Bourbon Red Turkey, Brined and Grilled


Pumpkin Bread Pudding

Susan's Apple Pie

Homemade Maple Ice Cream

To drink: Several wines, including Converging Creeks Pinot Noir

25 November 2009

The centerpiece

For about three days now, Seth has been harassing me about a pile of sticks collecting up in the mud room. Last night he looked at them, sighed, and said, "Let me guess, centerpiece?"

Yes, my dear. What he really meant to say was "Thank you for spending zero cash on something I think is pointless."

You're welcome. It wasn't what I had in mind when I started, but it came together simple enough. Just a few things I had around the house anyway: dried split peas, candles, mason jars and moss-covered twigs I collected on walks.

Oh, and I'm better at making centerpieces than taking pictures. It looks better in person.

Now, back to the kitchen.

The last dish

The first time I made gravy on my own was one of my first holidays celebrated with my in-laws. My mother-in-law has a friend who usually makes it, but she wasn't around. I said I'd do it, and it wasn't until I got going that I realized I'd never actually made it before. I had, however, watched my mom make it dozens of times.

I understood the basics of it. Fat plus starch plus liquid equals gravy. Still, I did make one phone call to my mom for a little reassurance, and in the end we had gravy on the table.

Gravy can be intimidating to a generation who didn't grow up watching someone make it on Sunday mornings to slather over fresh-baked biscuits. In fact, I think our fear of all things fattening nearly banished it from many tables. And, of course, it's because of that fat that it's absolutely delicious, and, in moderation, isn't the worst thing you could put in your body.

My mom makes a giblet gravy that's fabulous. It never occurred to me to think it was weird to include the organ meats and hard-boiled eggs. Besides, what else are you supposed to do with that strange sack of organs stuffed in your bird?

If you'd like a good recipe or two, check out this page from Gourmet. You'll find a few gravy recipe options.

And here are a couple of pointers to keep in mind:
  • Gravy gets thicker as it cools, so be patient with it.
  • It won't reach its full thickness if you don't heat it to a slow bubble.
  • Lumps in the gravy typically come from flour or cornstarch that wasn't added properly. If you need to boost your gravy's thickening power mid-course, take a couple of tablespoons of stock and add a teaspoon or so of corn starch. Whisk to incorporate and then add the liquid to the gravy and simmer.
  • Gravy is a pan sauce, really. And pan sauces are delicious because they're cooked with the rendered fats and bits from meats or some other foods. The added bonus of making a pan sauce is that it actually helps clean your pan by removing those stuck-on bits!

23 November 2009

Brine time

Much to Seth's dismay, I lack some of his organizing, um, talents. That's why I had to thumb through scraps of newspaper clippings, glossy torn magazine pages and envelope backs earlier today. I held each one long enough to read an ingredient or two. Then, I tossed them aside with a mental, "No. No. No," ticking through my head.

I knew my turkey brine recipe was somewhere in there, and I knew it was on a wide-ruled piece of notebook paper, scratched down in a hurry. The words actually run perpendicular to the lines on the page -- must have been some hurry. I jotted down this recipe while a great cook I know rattled it off one day. She did it in a way that meant, "Don't right it down, just listen." I get it now because I've tasted it, so I remember the slightly sweet, spicy and herb-infused flavors. It's not exactly about precision. The brine adds a subtle flavor to the turkey, and the salt helps keep it moist.

So, here it is. The biggest obstacle to overcome for those of us who don't have a commercial walk-in refrigerator is how to keep the bird chilled while brining. Unless you've got space for a 5-gallon bucket, get one of those oven bags. Put the bird and brine inside and secure tightly. Place the whole thing in a roasting pan to catch any leaks. Here's the big catch: You have to flip the bird regularly to make sure it gets brined on all sides. I'd flip it every six hours for a total of 24 hours of brine time.

Once you're ready to roast, rinse and dry the bird first. The juices will be more salty than an unbrined bird, so the pan drippings are not the best for a gravy. It's a trade off. Though you could make a turkey stock with the neck and other organ meats you pull from inside the bird.

Turkey Brine
8 cups water
1 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup salt
Fresh rosemary stems
12 cloves of garlic
Bay leaves
Fresh thyme stems
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes

Bring the water, salt, sugar, and syrup together in a large pot, heating until sugar and salt dissolve. Turn off heat, and add the remaining ingredients while still warm. Leave uncovered until completely cool, and then chill to bring the temperature down to no more than 40 degrees. Place the turkey in the oven bag and then into a roasting pan. Holding the bag in a way as to not let liquid out, add liquid. Then securely tie the bag and refrigerator for 24 hours, rotating occasionally to brine all sides equally.

*Note: Because of the sugar in this recipe, the turkey skin may be more prone to burning, especially if it's a large bird. Loosely tent with foil to help keep it from browning too soon.

*Bonus: It's not bad on pork, either!

21 November 2009

Mom's Pecan Pie

If you invite my mother over for Thanksgiving, you better ask her to bring a pecan pie. Should you forget, forgo any pecan dessert at all. And whatever you do, do not pick up a grocery-store pie. It would be an insult.

She doesn't mess around when it comes to this pie. I grew up knowing how to spot a good pecan pie from a bad one at a pretty young age. Burnt pecans, too much cracking or the overly gooey are the hallmark signs of a bad pecan pie.

Her pie is pretty delicious. It's the recipe her grandmother, Grandma Peach, used to make. My mom said she's pretty sure it came from one of her cookbooks, but in the way recipes do, as they get handed down, we forget where they originated and remember only where we got them.

That's why I'll call this Linda's Pecan Pie, after my mother who gave it to me. Maybe someday it'll be called Amy's Pecan Pie.

Linda's Pecan Pie

1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
3 eggs slightly beaten
1 cup white corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans
1 pastry shell*
Cream butter; add sugar gradually and cream together until light and fluffy. Add remaining ingredients and blend well. (Butter may clump when the corn syrup is added and that is okay). Pour into uncooked pastry shell. Bake on lower shelf in a moderate oven (375 degrees) for 40 to 45 minutes. Cover edge of pie crust to prevent from browning too much.
For better results start temperature of oven at 400 to 450 degrees then reduce heat after 10 to 15 minutes. Make sure if you do this method to cover the edge of the pie crust or it will burn. This time is part of total cook time above.
The center of the pie may split to vent but will close when the pie cools. Cool completely before serving.

* If you need a basic pie crust recipe, click here.

20 November 2009

The big thaw

If you're like me, you'll need a dozen post-in notes and a reminder in your husband's iPhone about what day to pull the turkey out of the freezer, so it's thawed in time for the big day.

Here's the skinny on thawing a fat bird:
  • Allow 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.
  • This means, if your turkey weighs 15 pounds, you'll need to move it to your refrigerator early Monday.
  • Never thaw a turkey anywhere but the refrigerator.
  • Place the bird in a roasting pan to thaw. Even though it's wrapped up, it's possible that juices will leak out. Not only is it messy, but it can become a health hazard, too, if that juice comes into contact with other things you eat.
  • If you plan on brining your bird, you'll need to thaw even sooner. You don't want to brine a frozen bird.
  • Turkey (along with any other meats, dairy or prepared foods) should not be left out for more than two hours at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees. That pretty much means your bird must either be in a cold refrigerator or hot oven except when you're prepping it.

18 November 2009

Cranberries included

As a kid, I think the only appearance cranberries made on our Thanksgiving table was the cylindrical, jelled variety, ribbed with imprints from the tin can. There were always leftovers, which I doubt anyone cared too much since it took such little effort to open the can and plop it onto a salad plate.

Perhaps that's why I was so happy to inherit this recipe from my mother-in-law. She got it from a friend, I believe, and as her motto goes, "If I can do it, anyone can." It combines fresh cranberries with apples, brown sugar, nuts and butter. How could it not be good, right?

Well, it gets even better because it is very simple to prepare. You can do all the prep ahead and even put it in the fridge until you're ready to bake. Or, it could be baked ahead of the big event, cooled, covered and refrigerated and then reheated for service. It's the kind of tradition worth keeping around -- unlike the tin can variety.

Cranberry Apple Bake

3 cups apples, finely chopped
1 cup sugar
2 cups whole, fresh cranberries
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts are good)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix apples, cranberries and white sugar in a bowl and set aside. In a second bowl, mix butter, brown sugar, flour and nuts. Transfer fruit mixture to a 9-by-9-inch casserole or baking pan; spread evenly. Top with butter and brown sugar mixture. Bake for about 1 hour and cool slightly before serving.

17 November 2009


With Thanksgiving Day quickly closing in on us, it's time to start planning the menu, especially if you'll be asking guests to bring a dish of their own.

No matter how creative we want to get on the holiday, it seems there are a few dishes that always make it on to the table. Stuffing, or dressing as it's also called, it seems, is one of those. It seldom makes an appearance any other time of year, and yet it seems pivotal to the T-Day dining. If you want to stray from the traditional, read this piece in the New York Times.

If, however, you like tradition, there's nothing wrong with sticking to a simple, straightforward stuffing recipe. This one comes from my Grandma Pat, a woman who, despite passing away just about six years ago, I really didn't know that well. In fact, I can't recall ever spending Thanksgiving with her since she and her second husband were snowbirds who felt most comfortable just this side of the Mexican-American border for all but the hottest months.

But recipes have a beautiful way of connecting generations. This is the stuffing my mother makes, which she, of course, learned from her mother. And that teacher-student relationship spans back at least one more generation, if not more.

Stuffing is actually very easy to make, and it's somewhat forgiving and adaptable. This recipe calls for half cornbread and half dried bread cubes, a nod to our Oklahoma roots. If you pick up the store-bought stuffing, just make sure it's naked, dried bread cubes. Seasoning yourself will allow you to better control the flavors. You could easily make your own dried bread cubes by simply slicing up some bread. For this recipe, I'd suggest cubing a plain French baguette. Just leave the cubes out, uncovered over night to dry out.

If you want to mix it up a bit, you could bake stuffing in muffin tins for individual servings. Reduce baking time as needed. If you're thinking of stuffing the cavity, read this.

I've adapted the recipe a little, perhaps back to its original form, calling for a pan-sweating of the onions and celery instead of a microwave cooking. Not everything from the '80s is coming back.

Grandma Pat's Thanksgiving Dressing

Dried corn bread (see recipe below)
Approx. 4 cups bread cubes/plain stuffing mix (the mixture should be roughly 1/2 corn bread, 1/2 cubed bread)
1 cup celery, diced
1 large onion, diced
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning (or substitute dried sage, rosemary, thyme and parsley)
2 eggs, slightly beaten
Approx. 2 cups of chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the onions and celery in melted butter over medium heat until translucent. Set aside to cool. In a large mixing bowl, combine the two breads. In a smaller mixing bowl, combine eggs and a few tablespoons of broth and whisk just until they come together. Add onions and celery to bread cubes and then pour egg mixture on top. Using your hands, turn over bread cubes to combine. Add 1/4 cup broth and sprinkle 1/4 of the poultry seasoning and salt and pepper over bread cubes, and then use your hands to mix bread again. Repeat, adding broth until all bread cubes are saturated but not dripping with liquid. Pour into a 9-by-13-inch pan. Bake at 350 degree for about 45 minutes.

Do ahead: Bake cornbread up to 3 days ahead. Cool completely. Once cool, using a fork, break up cornbread into small pieces. Tent with foil to keep other crumbs out, but do not seal or put on an air-tight lid. Allow to set out on your counter top at least overnight and up to a few days.

This is a basic cornbread recipe adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book, but any cornbread recipe could be used. To make the cornbread for stuffing, use only 2 tablespoons of sugar, and my mom says you may want to use a larger pan, such as a 13-x-9-inch, to bake it. That would result in a thinner cornbread that would dry out quicker. Note that in a larger pan, the cooking time may need to be reduced slightly.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup cornmeal
2 to 4 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 beaten eggs
1 cup milk
1/4 cup melted butter

Grease the bottoms and sides of a 9-x-9-inch pan and set aside. In a medium bowl stir together dry ingredients. Set aside. In another bowl, combine eggs, milk and melted butter. Add egg mixture to dry mixture all at once and stir just until combined. Spoon batter into pan and bake in a 425-degree oven for about 20 to 25 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.

10 November 2009

The bird has arrived

Yesterday was a big day for the turkey that will be the star of our Thanksgiving. Thanks to Nathan, we scored a locally raised bird from Zenger Farm, and since he was busy installing a floor on Monday, I picked up the bird.

Most of us don't think much about what a turkey really is when we're shopping for ours. They are hard and frosty and huge and have the word "Butterball" stamped on the label, right? Well it was hard for me not to think of the animal -- feathers, gobbler, feet and all. After all, I was instructed to come in the late afternoon because the birds were busy with the butcher all morning.

Our 6-pound Bourbon Red

That's why my breath was sort of taken away when I saw our bird, wrapped neatly in a clear plastic bag, pulled from the ice chest. It was beautiful. Pink, clean, skin flecked with large bumps from the quills. It just looked so different from the commercially-produced birds that I felt proud with it nestled in the seat next to me on the drive home. How great it was going to be to cook, I kept thinking.

Whether you were lucky enough to land your own locally-raised turkey or you'll be picking one up at the supermarket, it's time to shop. Here are some tips from Saveur magazine's November 2006 issue. And just thought I'd also mention that this is an example of why we keep our food magazines. Pull out yours from past years for holiday meal ideas. If you're like me, you'll have long forgotten what you read a couple of years ago!

A guide to buying turkey
  • CONVENTIONAL: This perennial favorite -- typically a Broad-Breasted White variety -- boasts an ultraplump breast that has usually (but not always) been injected with butter, water and salt; it will be labeled as "self-basted" if it contains these ingredients. Prices typically run $1 to $2 a pound; available at traditional grocery stores.
  • NATURAL: Sometimes these turkeys are labeled as "minimally processed" because they haven't been treated with artificial colors or flavor-enhancing ingredients. Natural does not mean organic. Those labeled organic have been raised according to specific rules established by the USDA. Natural turkeys are typically also the Broad-Breasted White variety. Natural birds start around $2.50 a pound, and you'll pay more for an organic. These are available at many grocery stores, and certainly at natural food markets.
  • HERITAGE: This category is made up old varieties such as Narragansett and Bourbon Red, the types of turkeys common in the U.S. before World War II. These breeds mature more slowly which can result in a slightly different flavor and texture than the conventional turkey -- sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Pricing start around $6 a pound. They are most likely to be found from local farmers although some specialty markets may carry a select amount.
A note about fresh versus frozen: There's not necessarily an advantage to one or the other. Fresh turkeys are more commonly available now, but I've always encountered some stress when buying them from the grocery store. You want to make sure they haven't been previously frozen because the repeated freeze and thaw can do damage to the meat. If you want to by fresh and not freeze it, you'll need to wait until Thanksgiving week (hence the stress, I've encountered). If you buy your bird frozen, just keep it frozen until it's time to thaw. And it's typically the thawing part that sometimes does damage, not the freezing -- all meat, including turkeys, should be allowed to gradually thaw in the refrigerator over several hours or days, depending on the weight. Allowing it to thaw at room temperature is a food-safety no-no, and the cold water bath simply won't help a bird of any size thaw quickly.

09 November 2009

Make a bread-baker out me

I didn't grow up around much bread baking. Of course, very few people in this country have baked daily loaf breads in the past 75 years. And that's one of the magical things about holidays -- we're willing to pull off kitchen tasks we'd never otherwise have the gusto to do.

And that's how something like a homemade roll can land on the Thanksgiving table. A couple of years ago when we hosted a Thanksgiving for neighborhood friends, some guests brought homemade rolls, finishing their rise when they arrived. And there was my sister-in-law's boyfriend who made rolls for a holiday meal once, too. And my friend Matt, who used to ask me cooking questions all the time when we worked together, is now a bread baker. Geez, I thought, I should get with the program and get over my bread-baking phobia.

Bread baking is something I'm trying to do more of, and I was so excited how easy this pumpkin roll recipe was. It made me wonder why I hadn't tackled yeast and flour before. (Here's where I should note that I recognize making pizza dough is bread baking, but it just never seemed that scary.)

Get the kids involved, or farm this task out to a friend or relative who wants to help the hostess. The pumpkin flavor in these is only very subtle, and mostly adds a nice color to them. I froze half of the batch I made after the first rise. Then, I thawed them on the counter and let them rise again. I found the thawed rolls tasted good, but the texture was not quite as good as the fresh ones.

I'd bake them all, even if you have a smaller crowd, though. They hold up for a day or two in a zip-top bag and would be perfect for your leftover turkey sandwiches.

Pumpkin Dinner Rolls
Adapted from a Sunset recipe

1 1/2 cups warm milk
2 1/4 teaspoon yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 egg, slightly beaten
3/4 cup canned pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)
5 tablespoons vegetable shortening
4-5 cups all purpose flour
2 tablespoons melted butter

In a medium bowl, combine milk, yeast, sugar and salt. Let stand five minutes. Add egg and beat well. In another small bowl, combine pumpkin and shortening and mash with the back of fork until the shortening is broken into small pieces. In the bowl of a mixer, combine the milk and pumpkin mixtures. Attach the dough hook and on a low speed, begin mixing while adding flour, one cup at a time. Once the dough combines and pulls away from the side, stop adding flour. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and knead for about two minutes. Let rise for about 1 1/2 hours. To divide the dough, first cut into fourths. Then take each fourth, and cut into sixths. Work dough into balls and place on a baking sheet, just slightly touching. Brush tops with melted butter and allow to rise another 30 minutes.

Bake at preheated 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until tops are golden and rolls are baked through.

06 November 2009

Cake in the afternoon

Today I made the Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake that I posted earlier in the week, and all I can say is that I am sorry you are not here right now. It's delicious. Better than I remembered. So dense, so moist and not too sweet. Absolutely lovely.

I will offer more holiday dessert recipes, and this one should certainly be on the list. But please don't wait for an excuse to make this cake. It would be perfect with a hot cup of tea on a cold afternoon. Or a fabulous present wrapped in wax paper as a brown bag dessert. Or even eaten straight out of your hand over the kitchen sink. I would not disapprove.

And something great about this cake is that with the pumpkin and buttermilk, it's very moist, and could absolutely be made a day ahead of, say, a holiday!

04 November 2009

Holiday Prep: The Dish

Around this time of year, all of the stores start pushing holiday dishware. Maybe it's a simple, rustic pattern in beautiful fall tones, or the very traditional Christmas tree plate. It's a marketing ploy, and as darn good one at that.

Holidays may be the one time of year when it seems you don't have enough place settings for your guests. And Chinet just won't do. What's a girl to do but buy a complete set for the occasion?

If a set of Candy Cane plates is in your budget and storage isn't an issue, be my guest. But the rest of us should rethink that purchase. My advice is to buy solid white. It may sound ho-hum, but remember, when you buy it, it's just sitting there naked. Unless your meals consist of white rice, mashed potatoes and plain pasta, even simple meals will stand out on the crisp white background of a white plate. There's a reason why it's the restaurant standard.

The upsides are endless. It's timeless. Today and 40 years from now, you will be able to find solid white tableware at any store. That means it's easy to add to your collection. Even when you don't have the exact same plate design, a little mix and match can still be elegant and, frankly, barely noticeable when you're using solid white.

Polenta and red sauce topped with sauteed mushrooms and arugula

And speaking of mix and match, if you and your sister both own a set of solid white dishes, add them together for the holiday, and you've suddenly got service for 20. If you prefer to set the table in advance, alternate settings for a more cohesive look. You'll be amazed how beautiful a set table of white dishes look against a dark wood table, tablecloth or place mat.

Use this same guideline when buying platters and serving bowls. And if you're afraid your deviled eggs will get lost on the white platter, buy a bag of baby spinach leaves and make a beautiful bed of greens for them to rest on (plus, it will keep them from sliding!).

02 November 2009

Kickoff to the holiday season!

When November arrives it's like we all get an excuse to start eating more, testing recipes and generally ogling foodie magazines.

First Thanksgiving and then Christmas, it's two months of kitchen fun. But along with all that fun can be some overwhelming tasks. Like what to do when you invite 10 people over and you have place settings for eight. And what about coordinating an entire day of cooking. And what, when you're expected to make a huge mid-day meal, do you really have to do breakfast, too?

In the next several weeks, I'll be posting my usual weekly recipe, but check back throughout the week to find additional tips on everything from baking to setting the table.

And in the spirit of the season of pumpkin, I'm giving a nod to a recipe I posted two years ago. It's an excellent pumpkin cake that is a must-have in your holiday repertoire.

Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake with Buttermilk Icing, epicurious.com

For cake
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for greasing bundt pan
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin (from a 15-oz can; not pie filling)
3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs

For icing
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons well-shaken buttermilk
1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar

Special equipment: a 10-inch nonstick bundt pan (3 qt)


Make cake:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter bundt pan generously, then dust with flour, knocking out excess.

Whisk together flour (2 1/4 cups), baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together pumpkin, 3/4 cup buttermilk, and vanilla in another bowl.

Beat butter (1 1/2 sticks) and granulated sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes, then add eggs and beat 1 minute. Reduce speed to low and add flour and pumpkin mixtures alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until batter is just smooth.

Spoon batter into pan, smoothing top, then bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack 15 minutes, then invert rack over cake and re-invert cake onto rack. Cool 10 minutes more.

Make icing:
While cake is cooling, whisk together buttermilk and confectioners sugar until smooth. Drizzle icing over warm cake, then cool cake completely. Icing will harden slightly.

Cooks' note:
Cake can be made 3 days ahead and kept in an airtight container at room temperature.

26 October 2009

The muffin cookie

A while back I set out to find a cookie recipe that didn't contain eggs, so that even the little guy, with his egg-sensitivity, could indulge.

I settled on a pumpkin cookie recipe studded with chocolate chips. It tasted pretty good, but there was something about the texture that I just couldn't get past. It didn't really seem like a cookie to me. But I thought with a little tweaking it could perhaps make a great breakfast cookie -- sort of a cross between a muffin and cookie.

I added oats, applesauce and traded the chocolate for raisins. It's subtly sweet, dense, and, perhaps the best part, it goes down easily despite fumbling little fingers. These cookies don't hold up well over a day or two, which at first I thought was a problem. Then I realized that they hold up very well in the freezer, so problem solved. I now make a huge batch and freeze them. I pop them out one at a time and either leave them on the counter for a couple of hours or zap them in the microwave for a minute on defrost.

I'm not a nutritionist, but I don't think it hurts to get a little fruit, whole grains and vegetables in our kiddos when we can. If you're worried that your crew wouldn't like some of the ingredients, try these options: You could replace the raisins with chocolate chips if you wanted. You could chop the raisins a bit to make smaller pieces. You could even try golden raisins for a more subtle addition visually. Using instant oatmeal (versus rolled oats) will give you less of a oatmeal texture. Even still, you could toss your oats in a food processor for a minute and add that instead. You'd get the same nutritional value, but it would be harder for the picky eater to discern the oats from the rest of the cookie.

It's the perfect snack or breakfast when you're short on time or on the go. But we also like them while sitting down at the table when we've got all the time in the world.

Oats and Pumpkin Breakfast Cookie

1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup apples sauce
1 cup butter
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup raisins
1 cup oats
Additional brown sugar for topping

In a mixing bowl, combine whole wheat flour, all purpose flour, cinnamon and baking soda. Set aside. Cream together butter and sugars. Add pumpkin, applesauce and vanilla and mix to combine. Add about 1/4 of the flour mixture and mix to incorporate. Repeat, adding 1/4 of the mixture at a time until it is all combined. Next, add raisins and oats, mixing just until combined. Roll rounded tablespoons of the dough into balls and dip one side in brown sugar. Set dough ball on cookie sheet with sugared side up. Using either a glass or empty measuring cup, lightly press on the ball to flatten slightly. Repeat with remaining dough.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 10-12 minutes. Cookies should rise slightly and a toothpick inserted should come out clean.

Makes approximately three dozen cookies.

To freeze: Place baked and completely cooled cookies on a cookie sheet, making sure no cookies are touching. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the freezer for at least three hours. Transfer cookies to an airtight container and return to freezer. To defrost, pull out as many cookies as you need and either leave at room temperature for about two hours or place in microwave on defrost until cookie is defrosted but not hot.

20 October 2009

Soup Season Begins

It's soup season, folks, and if you're the type that loves pulling out the scarves and those winter boots, I imagine you're excited about a warm bowl of soup, too.

I happen to work with a fun little business that's known for soup. Here is a reprint of its famous Tomato Orange Soup. The recipe has been printed before in several venues over the years, including The Oregonian (which is where I'm pulling the recipe from), and it'll even pop up as a commonly searched item in Google. It's that popular. Think cream of tomato soup with orange flavor. May sound strange, but the combination of rich cream and acidic juice is excellent, so don't skimp with low-fat milk or less butter, it just won't taste the same.

This recipe is delicious, but, of course, it's not quite as good as the one you'll get if you visit Elephants, but it's still worthy of a weeknight dinner. You very likely have the ingredients at home right now.

Serve it with rolls, dress it up with croutons, make it a first course or make it the entree. It's just enough of a twist on your basic tomato soup to make it memorable and a favorite for guests.

Elephants Delicatessen's Tomato-Orange Soup

Makes 4 servings

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick)

1/2 medium onion, diced

2 14 1/2-ounce cans unsalted diced tomatoes with juice (see note)

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1 cup fresh orange juice

1/2 cup whipping cream

In a saucepan, melt butter; add onion and saute until translucent. Add tomatoes, salt, pepper, baking soda and thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer uncovered about 15 minutes or until slightly thickened.

Puree in a food processor or blender; strain through a sieve or food mill.

Return to saucepan and stir in orange juice and cream. Bring to a simmer and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve hot.

Note: S&W makes unsalted diced tomatoes. If not available, substitute regular canned diced tomatoes and omit or reduce salt, depending on your taste.

12 October 2009

Pumpkin for dessert

I'm traveling this week, so I thought I'd pull out a recipe from a 2007 blog post that's perfect for the season. Too often we think those cans of pumpkin puree are only good for pies and quick breads. But they offer so much more than that. Add it to soups, cookies, pancakes or oatmeal any time of year. And this time of year, a warm pumpkin dessert just feels right.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding is so easy, I actually pulled it off last Thanksgiving while roasting a Turkey and nursing a 7-week-old baby. Bread pudding is best made with a challah loaf or some other type of soft, sweet bread that is quite delicious in its own right. This recipe calls for an egg bread, which challah is. Brioche would also work, and, I suppose, in a pinch, you could pull some Texas Toast white, so the cubes could be nice and large.

Make it. Enjoy it. And add ice cream.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding,
Bon Appetit

Bread pudding ingredients
2 cups half and half
1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin
1 cup (packed) plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
10 cups 1/2-inch cubes egg bread (about 10-ounces)
1/2 cup golden raisins

Caramel sauce ingredients
1 1/4 cups (packed) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup whipping cream

Powdered sugar

For bread pudding: Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk half and half, pumpkin, dark brown sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon and vanilla extract in large bowl to blend. Fold in bread cubes. Stir in golden raisins. Transfer mixture to 11x7-inch glass baking dish. Let stand 15 minutes. Bake pumpkin bread pudding until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare caramel sauce: Whisk brown sugar and butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until butter melts. Whisk in cream and stir until sugar dissolves and sauce is smooth, about 3 minutes.

Sift powdered sugar over bread pudding. Serve warm with caramel sauce.

06 October 2009

Figs for me

How I never ate a fresh fig before this summer, I do not know. The fruit is subtly sweet, and it's soft flesh and tiny seeds make for a pleasing mouthfeel that's easily devoured in one bite or two.

The season will soon be gone, so pick up some fresh figs quick. Steal them from your neighbor's tree (Dan). Or buy them at your farmers market (me). Just get them fast. And, if you manage to get them home without eating them all, slice 'em, dab them with goat cheese, pop 'em in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes and then drizzle them with honey.

Serve them warm, popping the whole bite in your mouth at once. Should you have a guest who doesn't dig them, politely ask them to move over because you'll want their shares!

30 September 2009

Frosting love

This post is for a friend who asked about frosting recently. It's birthday time around here, and I've made two rounds of cake and frosting for my little man. And one more is yet to come.

Frosting is one of those things that can turn an ordinary cake into something special. And what can make it even more special is to whip up a little bit of frosting yourself. It seems we're in a world where that shortening-laden frosting that comes on the Costco cake has become the standard. That makes it hard to recognize a basic butter frosting that comes straight from your mixer. The flavor is different, absolutely rich, and that richer quality comes through with butter rather than shortening. And the texture may seem strange, not quite as fluffy, and the look, well, for most of us, it actually looks like we frosted it. And there is nothing wrong with a little homemade look when it comes to a cake.

So next time you make a cake, pull together a little frosting, too. It's simple and comes from ingredients you probably already have in the house. This is the basic recipe that comes straight from my Better Homes and Gardens cook book. If you like chocolate, add unsweetened coco powder like I did. Make it pink with some food coloring or add an extract for flavor if you like. Substitute orange juice for the milk and add zest for an orange frosting. The possibilities are endless.

Just remember that the best part of making frosting at home is saving a little to lick right off the whisk. That's when you'll know it was worth the effort.

Butter Frosting
1/3 cup unsalted butter
4 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Additional milk

In a mixing bowl, beat butter until fluffy (a stand mixer is best). Gradually add 2 cups of the powdered sugar, beating well. Slowly beat in 1/4 cup milk and vanilla. Slowly beat in remaining powdered sugar. Beat in additional milk as needed for desired consistency. This recipes is enough to frost the tops and sides of two 8- or 9-inch layers.

Note: The butter is easiest to work with if it is cut into smaller pieces and allowed to sit at room temperature for a few minutes before beginning. Remember that it may soften more while mixing but will set up again if refrigerated.

Tip: Place sheet of wax or parchment paper underneath the edges of the cake before frosting. Then pull them out once you're done, and you'll have a clean platter instead of one that has frosting smudged all over it!

22 September 2009

The Last Bit of Summer

Since I blew my deadline this week, you might not need to hear how I've been busy lately. You may have just assumed.

Well, I have been busy, and while I'm still cooking three meals a day and snacks around here, I just don't often pause long enough to think someone else might want to know what I'm making. That's why tonight's dinner was such a relief. It was so easy that if I didn't have the dishes to do, I'd of thought I didn't make dinner at all.

It's also funny that I make this dish today, on the first day of fall. The dish is a surprisingly pleasant combination of cantaloupe, coconut milk and pasta. Melons are ripe at the end of summer and they will carry over into the beginning of fall. I still couldn't help but think this dish was a last ditch effort to celebrate what's left of the season. It also doesn't hurt that melon -- watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe or any other variety -- is one of my son's favorite foods. Combining it with pasta was about as great of an invention as the grilled cheese in his book, I think.

The credit goes to a great cook in my 'hood. He's cooking occasionally for a restaurant down the street when he's not selling fish tacos. When I popped by recently, with no intention of having a meal, I couldn't help but order this pasta dish. I sounded strange and delicious all at once, and it was, delicious, that is.

It's originally an Italian recipe that calls for cream. He decided to swap it for the coconut milk to make it a vegan dish. It's really very simple, and I'm just going to describe the method for the sauce. You can pick the pasta it goes on. I felt inspired by the coconut milk and chose Thai rice noodles. He served it over spaghetti, a nod to the Italian version. I'd say it would also be great over plain white rice, too. And I threw some thawed frozen peas and chopped tomato just to make it interesting.

Cantaloupe & Coconut Milk Sauce

Cube half of a medium, peeled and seeded cantaloupe. Add to a medium hot saute pan with a drizzle of olive oil. Cook for a couple of minutes, just until melon begins to turn tender and fragrant. Add one can of coconut milk and whisk in one tablespoon of tomato paste. Bring to a simmer and season as needed with salt and pepper. Let simmer for about four to five minutes and remove from heat. Toss with cooked pasta and serve. Of course you could absolutely stay true to the Italian version and use cream instead of coconut milk. Either way, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

14 September 2009

Pancake Breakfast

One of the secrets to a great life must be a pancake breakfast.

And I'm not talking about the dinner-plate-size variety you get at the 24-hour breakfast joint. I mean a good pancake made from your own kitchen, plate optional. The kind the kids eat while toddling around waiting on grown-ups. The kind that require warm pajamas and fuzzy slippers. And the kind that, should there be leftovers, hang around on the kitchen counter until someone needs the perfect afternoon snack.

We all need a good pancake recipe, even if it comes from a box. It's just a must-have in your cooking repertoire.

That's why I was so bummed when I thought pancakes were out for us because of Jasper's egg allergy. But after some searching online, I settled on an egg-free recipe that sounded good. We've made it a lazy, weekend morning standard, and it's good to know some things are just a given: the little guy loves his pancake.

If you crave a little variety, get creative. Most pancake recipes, even boxed varieties, handle a few extra ingredients well. Just make your recipe as direct and fold in ingredients. Try adding smashed banana and chopped walnuts. The one pictured here was made with applesauce, grated apple and cinnamon. You could also try adding a little maple syrup to the batter to sweeten. Or fold in canned pumpkin and cinnamon for a fun fall breakfast. And don't underestimate how a couple of chocolate chips or blueberries can transform this meal.

Here are my two standard pancake recipes, one of them being egg free. Make a weekend breakfast date with your family this weekend. It won't disappoint.

Egg-Free Pancakes

1 cup whole wheat flour
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup milk
1/3 cup carbonated water
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 small apple, peeled and grated
1/3 cup applesauce

Combine dry ingredients in a medium bowl and set aside. Combine wet ingredients, save the grated apple and applesauce, in another bowl. Pour wet ingredient mixture into dry. Stir to combine. Fold in applesauce and grated apple. Using a ladle, pour batter onto medium-hot griddle and cook until first side is lightly browned, flip and cook second side. Keep pancakes warm in a low oven until ready to serve.

Better Homes & Gardens' New Cook Book

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons cooking oil

In a medium mixing bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. make a well in the center of the dry mixture; set aside.
In another medium mixing bowl combine the egg, milk and cooking oil. Add egg mixture at once to dry mixture. Stir just till moistened (batter should be lumpy).
For standard-size pancakes, pour about 1/4 cup batter onto a hot, lightly greased griddle or heavy skillet. Cook over medium for about two minutes on each side until pancakes are golden brown, turning to second sides when pancakes have a bubbly surface and edges are slightly dry.

07 September 2009

When the weather turns

It's amazing how the first taste of fall can shift your mood. One day you're picking tomatoes in the garden, excited about simple summer salads, and the next, you're excited about warm soups and stews.

I still have tomatoes ripening on the vine, but cooler nights, some gray days and temperatures in the 70s have me just a little excited for the next culinary season. It's filled with squash, roasted meats and winter greens. And a big bowl of chili stacked with cheddar cheese and Fritos for watching football.

The other night I made an impromptu fall-ish dish of chicken and mushrooms in a creamy sauce. I served mine atop some mashed potatoes, but I'm thinking it would be delicious over some egg noodles, too. Almost like a chicken strogenoff without the sour cream.

I cooked up chicken tenders, which is basically smaller portions of breast meat. That meant quick cooking, which is a bonus these days. You could, however, substitute chicken thighs or even breasts. If you're using a thicker cut of meat it will take longer to cook. I think if I were using a whole breast, I'd brown it in the pan first and then finish it in the oven while you make the sauce.

Another nice bit about this dish is that it could easily be made ahead and either kept warm or reheated. Serve it with some roasted root veggies, and I'd say this dish just might get you excited about fall, too.

Chicken with Creamy Mushroom Sauce

1 pound of raw chicken tenders, patted dry

2 cups mushrooms, sliced

2 cups of whole milk
2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons flour
Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil

Pour olive oil to coat the bottom of a heavy-bottomed pan* on medium-high heat. Once oil begins to ripple, add chicken in a single layer, making sure all meat has contact with the bottom of the pan. Cook, without turning, until the meat easily releases and the cooked side it golden brown. Turn to cook the second side. Once chicken is cooked, remove from pan and set aside. Add more oil, if needed, and mushrooms. Cook until mushrooms are tender; remove and set aside. Add butter and melt until foam disappears. Whisk in flour and cook on low heat about four minutes, stirring, to remove the raw-flour taste. Whisk in milk and bring to a low boil to allow butter and flour mixture to thicken milk. Once sauce begins to thicken, add mushrooms and chicken back to sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste.
* A pan without a nonstick coating is preferred for this recipe. If using a nonstick pan, the meat may not brown, so simply cook until meat is done in center.

31 August 2009

Just Ask

I'm going to try very hard to keep this post from sounding like a your-mother-told-you-so speech. But really, she probably did tell you this already, at least mine did.

Just ask. That's it, my advice for the week. The reward was a fabulous meal shared with fantastic company.

Nathan and Leah came over for dinner on Saturday, something that used to scare me given their farmer, foodie and wine-knowing status, but it is nothing more than a fantastic treat. In preparation, I made a trip to the farmer's market. I bought a few veggies, keeping in mind what Nathan would be bringing from his own farm and then set out to buy some locally-raised lamb. The gals at the booth were offering samples of their delicious lamb. I tried. I liked.

Then, I asked about the marinade. I watched one of the women write it down for another customer. Parsley, cilantro, cumin, onions, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. Easy enough. Then I asked her how long, and she said the recipe called for 30 minutes, but she had the best results with three hours. Well, what a great tip, especially given she makes the recipe weekly, and she wants something that highlights her meat at its best. I would take her advice.

Later that afternoon I headed down the street to pick up a bottle of wine and thought about dessert on my walk. I wanted to grill a couple of peaches, but I needed to do something with them to complete the dish. Because of a few dietary restrictions with my crowd, I couldn't incorporate gluten or refined sugar into my dessert. I thought some rosemary whipped cream would be delicious with them. Then, after thinking it through in my head, I realized I wasn't sure how to impart the rosemary flavor (via some kind of steeping method) without killing my chances of getting the cream to whip. So, I stopped by Mint Tea, a cafe down the street, to ask the cook in the kitchen how he'd go about doing this. I knew he'd know more about milk proteins than I did, and I was right. He said heating the cream would probably kill my chances of getting a nice fluffy result. So he suggested I steep the herb in just a small amount of cream, only bringing it up to about 120 degrees. So that's what I did. After grilling the peaches, I topped them with a dollop of the rosemary whipped cream, a sprinkle of rosemary for garnish and then a drizzle of honey. It was pretty darn tasty.

The dinner turned into one of those where we just had bowls and platters filled with salads, grilled squash, eggplant, lamb and potatoes that we passed around the table. It was fun, relaxed, delicious and too simple to feel stuffy. What a perfect night. So perfect, in fact, I didn't stop to take a picture until the whole thing was over. I had a mountain of dishes, but I didn't care. Doing them gave me time to reflect on how much fun the evening was.

Asking how to prepare something doesn't make you a bad cook. It makes you a smart cook. There are very few -- if any -- dishes and cooking methods that haven't been tried before. Let someone else's experience and knowledge lighten your load. And, most of us are happy to share. Ask the butcher how to cook the meat. Or your friend who makes delicious pies for her crust recipe. And your neighbor whose husband loves to garden, ask what she does with all those tomatoes he grows.

I hope you find a way to make the best of what's left of the summer season. Its ripe bounty, outstanding weather and playful attitude don't last forever.

And if you're not sure what to do, just ask.