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.