Blond Enchilada Casserole
one pound of ground beef
1/2 cup chopped onion (1 large)
2-4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 (15 oz.) can corn, drained
1 (15 oz.) can black beans, drained (but not rinsed!)
1 teaspoon cumin (plus any other desired spices)
1 cup (8 oz.) prepared taco sauce (your favorite brand/heat level)
2 cups shredded cheese
8-10 six-inch flour tortillas
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon instant chicken bouillon (I prefer to use soup base)
1 1/3 cups water (or more...to reach desired consistency)
2/3 cups sour cream
Brown the beef, onion, and garlic together, remove from heat, drain off any excess oil, then stir in the salt. Add the corn and black beans and cumin. (I think I added some other spices, too, like black pepper, a pinch of cayenne, a teaspoon or so of chili powder, and some Cajun seasoning--basically, anything that caught my eye in the spice cupboard! Use your imagination and the flavors that you like and taste as you go.) Then stir in the taco sauce and one cup of the cheese. Set aside.
In a saucepan, melt the butter--blend in flour and bouillon and cook for about a minute, whisking constantly. Stir in the water. Cook and stir until thickened. (It won't take long!) Remove from heat, and add the sour cream, whisking until smooth. Add a little more water if it looks too thick--you want it to be pourable, like a bechamel, which is basically what it is.
Use kitchen shears to make square tortillas. In the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish, spoon a little of the sauce and spread it around to coat the bottom of the pan. Layer in three or four tortillas (arranging them so that there are no gaps), then spoon on half of the meat and cheese mixture. Ladle on another spoonful or two of the sauce and spread it evenly over the filling with a spatula. Add another layer of tortillas, the rest of the meat mixture, and a little more sauce. Top it with one final layer of tortillas, the remaining sauce, and the other cup of cheese.
Bake uncovered at 350 for 15 or 20 minutes, or until everything has warmed through, the cheese has melted, and is starting to brown around the edges, and the whole thing starts to puff up a bit. Cut and serve (of course, it will cut easier if you let it cool for a bit before you serve).
*This is also a great make-ahead meal. Just assemble it, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until you're ready to bake it off. But then it might need a half an hour or more in the oven. This could serve eight people for dinner or sixteen at your office holiday potluck! ;-)
As for the Yuletide treats for my fine colleagues, I decided to screw my courage to the sticking place and try my hand at almond toffee. I tried it once, maybe a decade ago, with disastrous results. But I had two things going for me this time. One, I am a better cook now after another ten years of experience. And two, I had access to a recipe from two of my favorite food sources and blogger pals, Anna from Cookie Madness, and Joe at Culinary in the Desert/Country who also makes Anna's toffee every year. The only real differences that I can see in their recipes was that Joe makes a double batch at a time, adds the almonds into the toffee mixture a wee bit later than Anna does, and uses less salt. There may also be minor discrepancies about when to stir and when not to stir, and foil for the pan versus parchment paper, but essentially, they are making the same toffee. And if it's good enough for them, I was game to try! Now Anna does warn us that the candy does not always set up properly, despite one's best efforts, and that always scares me. I mean, who wants to spend all that money on butter and nuts--not to mention the time and energy (all that stirring!)--to have it not turn out? I also didn't have a back-up plan if the toffee didn't come out right. And I think you already know me well enough to know that I'd rather die than be found empty-handed on a major holiday! So the toffee just had to work. And TA-DAH...it did! YIPPEE!!
I looked at both Anna's version of the recipe and Joe's, and in the spirit of peace and coming together at the holidays, I recommend an amalgamation of the two. Plus, I have one or two ideas of my own. The first is a warning. It's best to let your butter come to room temperature before you begin the recipe. I did this for the first two batches, then decided to make a third batch and had to take another pound of butter out of the freezer. I didn't think it would affect anything, as you melt the butter first anyway. But the consistency of the last batch was different as it cooked, and when it was completely cooled, about half of the chocolate did not adhere to the toffee! Boo! So my warning to you is not to use frozen butter. But I also have one shortcut for you. If you want to chop up some bars of best-quality chocolate as Anna and Joe do, go for it. But I used bittersweet Ghiradelli chips, and it worked out just fine. Let me walk you through the rest of the process:
Anna's Almond Toffee
4 sticks butter (Anna and I both used salted)
2 cups sugar
1 cup water (Anna says warm, which I used)
1 teaspoon salt (Joe uses only half a teaspoon, but I love the salty/sweet thing)
3 cups sliced almonds, divided (shopping tip: it takes exactly 2 lbs. for three batches of this recipe)
1 teaspoon baking soda
16 ounces semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips (Anna and Joe both used chopped up bars of milk chocolate, I believe, and Joe uses only 12 ounces--but nothing exceeds like excess at the holidays!)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Evenly spread 1 cup sliced almonds onto a baking sheet and place in the oven for 6-8 minutes until they turn a light brown, stirring occasionally, so they do not burn. When done, cool and roughly chop the sliced almonds.
Cover a 10X15" pan with foil and set aside. (Anna uses parchment here, and I think I might have to agree with her. I had to use two pieces of foil to cover my sheet pans. Along the seam down the middle, some toffee seeped down, and I had quite a time trying to get those teeny strips of foil off the bottom of the toffee after it cooled. Just a thought...)
Place butter in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan (I used a smallish stockpot) and melt over medium heat until it starts to bubble and you can smell a pleasant nutty aroma. Stir in sugar, water and salt. Attach a candy thermometer (use one of those heavy-duty, Taylor brand thermometers, not a cheap, crappy one--knowing the exact temperatures of the candy is what will determine whether it turns out or not!) inside the pan and leave the heat on medium, bring to a boil without stirring (Anna and I both stirred occasionally to no ill effect.)
When the temperature reaches 245 (Anna says 240, but waiting another second or two might be good so that the almonds don't become overdone), stir in the remaining 2 cups (untoasted) almonds and stir constantly until the temperature reaches 295. Anna says that the thermometer should be rising slowly but steadily, and if it's not moving at all, turn the heat up bit by bit until the mercury starts to rise.
When at 295, remove pan from heat and carefully stir in baking soda. Quickly pour into the prepared pan, gently pushing it into the corners and evening it out with the back of a spoon or with a large, offset spatula. This will begin to set very fast so don't mess around too much, says Joe.
Sprinkle chocolate over the top of the hot candy and let set for five minutes. Using a large, offset spatula, spread the softened chocolate evenly over the top. Sprinkle with the crushed almonds and let cool at room temperature for an hour. Place in the refrigerator and let sit for at least a couple of hours (or overnight) so that the chocolate can set. Break into chunks with a knife or your hands. Package prettily and present!
This recipe (which is a double-batch for Anna!) makes about 30 good-sized chunks of toffee, so I put about five pieces in each goodie bag as a gift. It was enough, but just enough, I think. I would have liked to have added another piece or two to each bag. So I got about six gift bags out of this batch, but you might plan for just four or five if you want to be very generous. As it was, I ended up with 18 treat bags for my co-workers from three batches of the recipe above. Just to help you plan...