Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Goodbye, my sweet old man...

PERCY LINDSEY (March 14, 1991-November 27, 2006)

I know this is a cooking blog, but I hope you'll let me share. My old cocker spaniel, Percy passed away yesterday. He was almost 16 years old, and he had not been doing well for some time. He was blind and deaf and senile and incontinent and crippled with arthritis and had a (benign) tumor as well. He was also starting to have mild seizures every so often. I had struggled with the dilemma of whether or not to put him down for a long time, but every time I was ready to make the decision, he'd rally for a few weeks, or we found an effective medication to put him on, so I would postpone. (In fact, as you may recall, he just gave me a scare two weeks ago when he managed to escape half a mile up the road!) But I knew we were getting close this time. I was away for the weekend at the dog shows in West Springfield, and my roommate e-mailed me that he had stopped eating and drinking and was vomiting and had diarrhea. When I got home and saw him, I knew. I called the vet and told them that I would be bringing him in first thing Monday morning. But he didn't even make it through the night. :-(

The good news is, I know that he waited for me to get home so that I could say goodbye. I held him for a long time Sunday night and talked to him and loved on him, and he knew me, and he gave me many kisses--something that has not happened in awhile. And I am so very glad that he's not suffering anymore. It's been just terrible watching him go downhill. But it is so hard to not have my old friend of nearly SIXTEEN YEARS with me anymore. He was my first dog that was all my own as a young adult, and I can barely conceive of a time without him.

I remember him choosing as a puppy in Auburn, WA. I wanted a buff-colored girl, but my friend, Stacey, talked me into the sweet, black and tan boy, from an "oops" litter of a purebred cocker and some sort of fly-by-night terrier in the neighborhood (best twenty bucks I ever spent!). I remember walking him around Green Lake in Seattle as a baby and the ooh's and ahh's of passers-by who thought he was adorable, and then using that cuteness factor to help to schmooze customs officials so that my Canadian friend, Kevin, could keep his car in the US. I remember how sad I was when I had to leave him behind in Oregon with my mom when I went on to Illinois to find a place for us to live, and I remember my first trip into the big scary city of Chicago to pick him up at the airport (and freaking out when I couldn't find the right building!). I remember him being my only friend in Kankakee when I didn't know anyone. As a young woman starting my first real job in a new part of the country, it was such a comfort to come home to him every day. I also used to take him up to my office at Olivet Nazarene University with me every night when no one else was in the building. I remember a petsitter that didn't keep in touch one time when I was visiting home during the summer, and how my friend and colleague, Ruth, an English professor at the college, went to make sure that he was alright for me and put the fear of God into the lousy petsitter! I remember how all of my many roommates at the house on Mertens Street in Kankakee loved him, and how my roommate Karen's mom taught him tricks like rolling over and giving high fives. I remember another roommate, George, making him howl by meowing like a cat. I remember how my tiny friend, Tony, could just about fit on his bed with him. I remember him sleeping close to another friend, Carl, on the huge couch we called "The Coffin." I remember him in the moving truck with me and and my friend, John, heading to Utah. I remember lots of quality time spent at dog parks in Salt Lake City, camping at the national parks, and hanging out at my friend Kurt's house with his whole pack of creatures. And he was so glad when my mom moved in with me because she would stay home with him while I was at work, and he would sit beside her chair all day for constant petting and too many cookies. I remember him accepting mom's terrier, Rascal, back in IL, then her weiner dog, Hilde in UT (even Hilde could be a mean little cuss!), and finally, his good friend, Rosita Judd, the basset hound. I remember him always being gentle with the kitties, too. (In fact, we currently have a cat called Pudge who always considered Percy his momma, and nuzzled him constantly, much to the Old Man's chagrin!) I remember the terrible move from UT to New York. Two humans, two dogs, and two cats squeezed into the front of that hideous truck during the hottest part of summer. After the sun went down, we would put them all in the Grand Am and tow them behind. I could see his long ears flapping out of the car windows in my rear-view mirror. How he always loved riding with his head out of the car window, his eyes all squinty and his ears flapping! He also loved swimming, as most spaniels do. I remember the time when Prunelle the PBGV "surfed" on his back in the Chazy River (as hounds generally do NOT prefer swimming!). And how he loved his toys (mostly disemboweling them!) and his chewies and bones. But mostly, I think I'll remember how he greeted every guest that came to the house with a toy, like a welcoming gift. I will miss my old friend so very, very much...

Rest in peace, Bub. I know you are up there, running around again without pain in your hips and joints, rolling over and giving high fives, bringing toys to everyone to play tug of war with you, and yapping with joy. And I hope that my mom, Fran, is there with you, to look out for you and keep you by her side, petting you all day like she used to do until I can see you again myself. You were dearly loved, Old Man, and you will be profoundly missed.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Gobble, Gobble, Gobble!

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, everyone! I hope you are all having a delicious holiday with friends and family. I have a big dog show this weekend in West Springfield, Massachusetts, and I leave tomorrow at the crack of dawn (I hope we do as well as Fairchild did today in the "National Dog Show"--group one, yahoo!). So I am not going to my friend Lee Ann's in Saranac Lake like I normally do, but making dinner at home just for me, my roommate, Cyd, her friend from school, Rachel, and probably our next-door neighbor, Ken, too. Since we are a small group, we are going to keep it pretty simple and traditional.

Here's the menu:

Emeril's Relish Tray (Lee Ann makes this for me every year, as I love it so!)
Brined and Roasted Turkey
Cranberry-Orange Relish (and the ridged jelly stuff in a can for Rachel--eww!)
Sausage, Onion and Sage Dressing
Mashed Potatoes and Gravy
Roasted Maple and Brown Sugar Sweet Potatoes
Vegetable Melange (julienned green and yellow beans with orange and yellow carrots)
Chocolate Chocolate Cream Pie
Apple Pie

And here are some of the recipes. Why not all? Well, I'm sure you can make mashed potatoes on your own, I just steamed the veggies in the microwave, I've already posted the chocolate cream pie recipe, and we bought the beautiful apple pie at an orchard in Quebec when we visited L'Ile-Perrot awhile back--isn't it pretty, though? But here are the rest:

Relish Tray
(Source: Emeril Lagasse's Every Day's a Party)

1/2 pound green beans, ends trimmed
1 pound baby carrots
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
1/2 pound celery, cut into 3-inch pieces
1-pound jar Kalamata olives packed in vinegar brine and olive oil
11.5-ounce jar pickled peperoncini
16-ounce jar pickled hot cherry peppers
10-ounce jar pickled imported Spanish Queen olives stuffed with pimientos
8-ounce jar pickled Holland cocktail onions
20 fresh basil leaves
6 sprigs fresh thyme
6 sprigs fresh oregano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup olive oil

Blanch the green beans and carrots separately in a large pot of boiling salted water for 4 to 5 minutes. Drain, and shock in ice water to cool. Put all of the ingredients in a large glass bowl. Toss to coat the vegetables evenly with the olive oil. Refrigerate for 8 hours before serving in shallow glass dishes.

Yield: about 12 servings

Roasted and Brined Turkey

1 10-12 pound turkey, thawed
8 quarts water
1 cup kosher salt
1 cup brown sugar
2 lemons, quartered
1 bunch fresh thyme (at least 6-8 sprigs)
2 sprigs rosemary
6 garlic cloves
2 onions, quartered
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorns

Combine all brining ingredients in a large cooler or bucket. Submerge turkey (weighting down with a plate if necessary) and refrigerate overnight (12 hours is optimal but 8 will do).

Remove turkey from the brine and rinse and dry thoroughly. Place in a roasting pan with a rack and fill the cavity with an onion (quartered), a lemon (halved), and about four cloves of garlic and a handful of fresh herbs (of your choice). Coat the turkey all over with one stick of softened butter and season well with salt and pepper. Roast for about 2 1/2 hours at 350 degrees until joints feel loosened and the bird is well-browned. Let rest for about 20 minutes before carving and serving.

Cranberry-Orange Relish
Kerr's Home Canning and Freezing Book)

2 lbs. fresh cranberries (about 8 cups)
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 orange with peel, seeded and finely chopped
1/2 cup orange juice or orange liqueur

Combine sugar and water over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Boil until cranberries pop and mixture thickens, about 7-10 minutes. Save out a pint for your Thanksgiving dinner, and can the other 2-3 pints for Christmas (10 minutes in a water bath).

Sausage, Onion and Sage Stuffing

4 tablespoons butter
1 pound pork sausage
1 cup celery, finely chopped
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning (I love Watkins')
1/2 teaspoon rubbed sage (or up to one teaspoon if you really love sage!)
salt and pepper to taste
14-ounce bag stuffing cubes (or your own dried bread cubes, if you prefer)
2 1/2-3 cups turkey stock (homemade is best, but canned with do (low-sodium, though!)

Melt the butter in a large skillet. Add the sausage (crumbled), celery, onions, and spices and cook until the sausage is browned and the vegetables are soft. In a large bowl, add the stuffing cubes and the sausage and veggie mix. Stir together. Add enough turkey stock to reach your desired level of moisture (I like it medium--not too dry but not mushy either, which took a little less than three cups).

Place dressing in a buttered casserole dish, and bake for about 30 minutes at 30 degrees or until it's browned on the top and bottom.

Mashed Potatoes and Gravy

Make mashed potatoes the way you like them. I peel and chunk them up and then cook them until tender in chicken broth for added flavor. Then I mash them by hand (I like lumps!), and add butter and evaporated milk until I reach the desired consistency. Finally, I season with salt and pepper.

For the gravy, place the roasting pan with the turkey drippings on the front and back burners of your stove on medium. Heat up the drippings and add at least a half cup of a good red wine (I used a cab merlot this year as there was some sitting out unused on the counter). Add about a half cup of flour and whisk and cook for a minute or two get rid of that raw flour taste. Add turkey stock (maybe eight ladles or so--until you reach the right consisency) that you have made from the browned giblets, onions, garlic cloves, bay leaves, the herbs or seasonings of your choice, and of course, water (about 2 quarts, I'd say). You could throw in some celery and carrots if you like, as well (I didn't this time). I also added a couple of teaspoons of chicken bouillion to kick up the flavor a bit, so I did not add salt, but definitely lots of pepper. After you've simmered the stock for an hour or so (or until you need it), strain the bits out. Whisk constantly as you add the stock to the gravy to avoid lumps. Keep gravy on the lowest simmer until you're ready to serve.

Roasted Maple and Brown Sugar Sweet Potatoes

Peel and cut four sweet potatoes into chunks. Dress with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a sprinkling of both cinnamon and cayenne pepper, and season liberally with salt and pepper. Fill an unlined, ungreased half sheet pan with the sweet potato chunks, scatter bits of butter on top (4 tablespoons), and roast along with your turkey for about a half an hour. Toss them around with a spatula, sprinkle with about a quarter cup of brown sugar and drizzle with a quarter cup of maple syrup, and toss again. Return the pan to the oven and roast for another 15-30 minutes until tender and caramelized. Correct seasoning and serve.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Dinner at Trattoria Doe-Waite

Quite often on Friday evenings after a long and/or trying work week, a small group of friends and I go out to dinner at some local restaurant or another. The problem is, we just don't have that many decent restaurants in this teeny town! So two delightful members of our supper club were kind enough to invite us over to their house for dinner. Angela, the cook of the house, made some scrumptious entrees including something she called Venetian Chicken. The chicken breasts were lightly breaded, topped with tomatoes, garlic, balsamic and heaven knows what else. But they were beautiful, perfectly moist, and mighty tasty! She also made something that I shouldn't even try to pronounce or spell...something like Crespelle con (alla? agli?) Spinace--that is, spinach crepes with a delicious besciamella with just a trace of nutmeg. SO GOOD! (Yes, Angela is VERY Italian! And we bless her for it!)

Of course, I couldn't go over to the Doe-Waite household empty-handed. My mama didn't raise me that way! So I volunteered to bring dessert. I had the vision of combining two pie recipes from Ken Haedrich's book--a pumpkin cheesecake pie with a praline topping. About a week before, I floated this pie idea to our other hostess, Jen, who traumatized me by suggesting that not everyone likes pumpkin pie. So I feel compelled to make a second, back-up dessert to be on the safe side. I made one of my very favorite dishes, a croissant bread pudding that I prefer unadorned, but that I zhoozhed up with dried cherries and almonds and a cherry brandy sauce for this affair. Both desserts turned out perfectly, but the guests DEVOURED the croissant pudding (having seconds and even thirds!), and most of them never did make it to the pumpkin pie. I truly don't think it was a matter of not liking pumpkin pie as Jen (so meanly!) predicted, but they truly were swooning over and filling up on the bread pudding. So I left part of the pie for the hosts to enjoy the next day, and brought the rest home to share some with my next-door neighbor who said it was the best pumpkin pie he's ever had! In any case, both of these would make excellent additions to your holiday table. Enjoy!

Praline Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie
(Source: Ken Haedrich's Pie)

a single pie crust (your favorite--I made a half whole-wheat graham crust that was just wonderful with the spiced pumpkin filling and nut topping)

1 8-oz. package cream cheese
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly-packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
zest of one lemon, finely grated
1/2 teaspoon groud cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup pumpkin puree
2/3 cup light cream or half-n-half

Prepare the pastry and fit into a pie pan, crimping the edges. Freeze for at least 15 minutes, then partially pre-bake the crust. That is, bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees with parchment or foil and the pie weights of your choosing, then another 10-12 minutes at 375 uncovered, docking the crust with a fork. When the crust is just starting to brown, remove from the oven and paint the holes and any cracks with a bit of beaten egg white. Return to the oven for a couple of minutes until the egg white hardens. (This will protect the crust if the custard leaks.) Let the crust cool.

Cream the cream cheese with the sugars. Blend in the eggs and egg yolk, then the vanilla, lemon zest, spices, and salt. Add the pumpkin and cream and mix until smooth. Pour into the cooled pie shell and smooth out the top.

Bake for 40 minutes until the top has puffed slightly and maybe cracked a bit around the edges. (The middle can be wobbly but not soupy.) Let cool to room temperature on a wire rack, then refrigerate at least four hours. Top with praline topping (below).

Praline Topping:

1 1/4 cups chopped pecans
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted
2 tablespoons cream
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat broiler. Combine topping ingredients then spread evenly over the pie. Place the pie under the broiler until the topping is melted and bubbly (about a minute, give or take--watch it the whole time or it will scorch!). Let cool at least ten minutes to let the praline topping set before cutting and serving.

Cherry Almond Croissant Pudding with Cherry Brandy Sauce
(Source: adapted from Holiday Baking Magazine, 1999)

1 1/2 cups (or more) dried cherries
orange juice, heated
6 large croissants or 10-12 cocktail croissants, sliced in half lengthwise
8 large eggs
1 cup sugar
3 cups heavy cream (can use light cream or even half-n-half but it won't be as good!)
2 teaspoons vanilla (or a vanilla bean, scraped of its seeds)
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
pinch salt
1 1/2 cups (or more) sliced almonds, toasted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover the dried cherries with heated orange juice and set aside. Butter a 13 x 9 baking dish. Layer croissants in the pan so that there are no spaces between them and the entire surface is covered. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs with the sugar until light in texture and a paler yellow. Stir in cream, vanilla and almond extracts, and salt. Pour all over the croissants. Drain the cherries. Sprinkle them evenly over the croissants, then do the same with the almonds. Gently press the croissants down in the cream mixture so that they absorb as much of the liquid as possible.

Set the baking dish inside a larger one and pour hot tap water into the bottom pan until it comes about halfway up the sides of the inner pan. Bake for about 45 minutes or until pudding is puffed, browned, and just set in the middle. Remove the inner pan and let cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or chilled with Cherry Brandy Sauce (below).

Cherry Brandy Sauce:

5 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup kirschwasser or cherry brandy
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
pinch salt

In a large, heatproof bowl, beat egg yolks and sugar until pale yellow. Beat in brandy, almond extract, and salt. Place the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water and cook until mixture is thick and creamy, stirring constantly.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Everything Comes After Stew...

"This was after stew, but so is everything. When the first man first clambered from the slime and made his first home on land, what he had for supper that first night was stew." (This is an excerpt from my very favorite book in the whole wide world, The Princess Bride by William Goldman. Yes, it's the same book on which the wonderful Rob Reiner movie is based, but the book is even better, trust me! It is laugh-out-loud hilarious!)

Nothing makes me feel better about myself...so efficient, so Martha-like...than managing to get a meal going in the crock pot before I leave for work in the morning and returning home to a dinner that has already been cooked for me that evening! It's like having your own kitchen staff in a homey little counter-top appliance. This time, the goal was stew because Cyd had been bugging me to make some, and because we managed to unearth a hunk of sirloin that had gone unnoticed for Lord knows how long in the big freezer. To fashion the stew, I took some general guidance from one of my favorite food writers, Laurie Colwin, and from her marvelous memoir, Home Cooking.

First, I cut up about 2 1/2 pounds of sirloin into bite-sized chunks. I seasoned the pieces liberally with salt, pepper, and paprika, and then tossed them around in about a cup of flour until coated. Then I heated up a few tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and browned the beef in two batches along with two minced cloves of garlic per batch (that's four cloves total for the math-impaired). I added the first batch of browned beef (say that fast a few times--it's fun!) to the bottom of the crock pot. Then I sliced up a couple of ribs of celery and a very large, peeled onion, and cut maybe four large, peeled carrots into chunks. I placed half of this veggie mix on top of the first batch of beef, and then added two medium potatoes that I had also peeled and cut into chunks (though you may leave your potatoes unpeeled if you prefer). On top of the potato layer, I added the second batch of browned beef, the rest of the veggie mix, and another couple of cut-up potatoes.

In the now-empty skillet, I stirred together a small can of tomato paste, a 15-oz. can of diced tomatoes, a couple of cups of beef broth, a cup of good red wine, a glug or two of worcestershire sauce, two bay leaves, a small handful of parsley, and a goodly amount of both salt and pepper. I cooked this down for just 4 or 5 minutes to deglaze the pan of its yummy brown bits and to cook off most of the alcohol in the wine. Then I poured it all over the layers of would-be stew, covered the crock pot and turned it on high for about six hours. When Cyd got home, the vegetables were tender, so she turned it down to low and added some more beef broth until it was the preferred consistency. Then when I got home, I steamed some long-grained rice to serve the stew over (though Laurie Colwin prefers buttered noodles, rice is a holdover from my mom's cooking--we were big rice-eaters at my house as my dad was Hawaiian), and that was that. Easy-peasy!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Moose, er, Mousse from Jackson Hole

Unlike many folks, I am not a chocoholic. Still, sometimes, you just need it! I became obsessed today with the idea of chocolate mousse, and I had to come home and make some. I used a great recipe from way back in my culinary past, from the days of my only professional kitchen experience. You see, when I was in college, I worked at a ranch in Wyoming. That sounds rough, but it was really the kind of place where rich people went to have a "wilderness experience." I started out just cleaning cabins, but halfway through the summer, they lost both their prep cook and the person in charge of the laundry. I had my pick of those two posts. Guess what I picked? I may have made the wrong choice, as the new laundry gal just hung out watching talk shows and soap operas, ironing napkins all day. Meanwhile, I was up at 5 every morning, running up and down the stairs to the walk-in 800 times a day, chopping pounds and pounds of onions until I was blind from burning tears, ducking pots and pans being thrown by the moody gay chef, and being called a "f#cking b*tch" regularly by the crazy French chef (he meant it with love). Still, I loved it. I loved the hustle and bustle. I loved working with food. I loved feeding the guests three times a day. I loved feeding the staff with my own dishes. I loved learning more about cooking and improving my skills, eventually working my way up to breakfast cook. And I loved working with food professionals, even though they were clearly insane! All except one...a soft-spoken pastry chef named Kris, who strangely enough, ended up marrying and having children with the crazy French chef, Bruno, which I never did understand. In any case, this chocolate mousse was one of Kris' fine recipes, and it remains a treasured culinary souvenir from my time at the Crescent H Ranch in Jackson Hole.

Chocolate Mousse
(Source: Kris Scheibel)

1/3 cup sugar
6 tablespoons strong coffee (or 3 tablespoons coffee and 3 tablespoons Grand Marnier)
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
4 tablespoons half-n-half
3 egg whites, beaten to soft peaks
1 1/2 cups cold heavy cream, beaten until stiff

Dissolve sugar in coffee over medium heat. Set aside. Melt chocolate in double boiler. Whisk in half-n-half and coffee mixture. Cool.

Fold half of chocolate mixture into beaten egg whites, then fold that into the rest of the chocolate. Be gentle! Fold in the whipped cream. Spoon into glasses and chill at least four hours.

*Note: This is not the richest or densest of mousses, as it involves no yolks, and does not begin with a cooked custard. This is more of the lighter, frothier (egg white) ilk. But it's still darn good.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Percy's Big Adventure

WHOA! I know I say this every weekend, but that was a rough week! We are into the thick of the ugly part of the semester, and I am buried under papers. Then, as an added level of difficulty, I am swamped with student advisees during every "spare" minute. Whew! But the worst part of the week was Wednesday night when my old dog, Percy, went missing. I had let him out a little after midnight for the last potty run. I put Prunelle (the PBGV) on a long lead, but I didn't bother to hook up the old cocker spaniel. We haven't been for months, because he's so blind and deaf and arthritic...where's he gonna go? But I guess he showed me! When I went back out to let them in, Prunelle was there, but Percy had disappeared! To her credit, Prunelle tried to tell me. She was out there, barking her head off, and I kept yelling at her to shut up. Apparently, she was saying, "Percy's running away!" It was terribly foggy that night, and I guess he just got lost and confused and wandered off. But as we live on an extremely busy rural highway, I was terrified that he'd be hit by a car. So I was up all night, walking and driving around the neighborhood, trying to find him. Of course, he couldn't hear me calling because he's so deaf. I figured he was curled up under a bush or tree somewhere, and because he's mainly black, I couldn't see him. When the sun came up, I searched more thoroughly, and my wonderful next-door neighbor, Ken, walked every inch of the surrounding pastures, but he was nowhere to be found. I spoke to the neighbors, asking them to keep an eye out, and I called all the animal shelters and local dog catchers. Then I finally had to give up and go to work--I had student speeches that could not be postponed. I was upset all day long, and students kept asking me what was wrong. But I couldn't talk about it without breaking down. I just kept thinking that he had been hit by a car, or met up with a coyote that are prevalent around here, or as a couple of neighbors suggested, had just gone off somewhere to die. At almost 16, I know he's not long for this world, but I didn't want him to die alone and cold in the woods somewhere! The thought of it was more than I could bear.

But miracle or miracles, I got a call about 3pm from a farmer about a half a mile up the road. He had a little black cocker spaniel that he thought might belong to me. HALLELUJAH! The poor thing apparently fell into a ditch and got stuck in a mud hole for the night. And if that isn't bad enough, the farmer actually drove over the ditch with his tractor before his grandkids yelled that they spotted a little dog down there! So they pulled the poor old guy out of the mud, tried to clean him up a bit, fed him some cat food, and kept him wrapped in a towel in the cozy barn until I could get there to pick him up. And those kids were so sweet! They stayed with him, talking to him and petting him the whole time. They looked so sad when I came to take him home, and all they asked was if they could have a picture to remember him by. (Awwww! You know you're getting choked up over that one!) I promised them that I would bring one over. In the meantime, I took the old wanderer home and started the arduous process of cleaning him up. It took me 30 minutes of just rinsing the mud out before washing him, then 30 minutes of blow-drying, and at least another hour and a half to two hours of clipping to get him looking (and smelling!) good. I'm afraid that I had to shave off most of his hair, because after I got all the mud off of him, I found that he was stuck to the skin with tons of burdocks. Poor guy! But after his bath, haircut, a special dinner, and a good night's sleep in front of the heater, he was all better.

I was so grateful that my neighbors up the way found my sweet old man and returned him safely to me, that I decided to do a few things to show my appreciation. First of all, I wrote a letter to the kids from Percy, telling them a bit about himself and thanking them for saving his life. I also gave them a couple of copies of the picture above as they requested and a small cash reward. But of course, I had to make them some sort of special treat, too. I decided to make M&M shortbread, as I thought it would appeal to the kids. It's one of my favorite recipes. For adults, I usually swap out the M&M's for chocolate chips and then add some pecans. Then I leave off the cocoa glaze and instead top the bars by drizzling them with both caramel and chocolate ganache to make turtle shortbread. But the kiddies like the original version best:

M&M Shortbread

2 cups butter, softened

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 ounce package mini M&M's, divided

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cream butter and sugars. Blend in vanilla, and add the flour and salt. Mix until just blended. Stir in 1 1/4 cups M&M's. Press into a jelly roll (half sheet) pan. (Feel free to halve this recipe and make it in a 9x13 oblong dish--that's why I did, and you can see that it made a pizza pan's worth of cookies!) At this point, you can either press in another 1/2 cup of M&M's lightly into the top of the dough before baking. But I prefer to save them to sprinkle on top of the cocoa glaze later. That way you can see them! But that's your call. In either case, bake the shortbread for 20-25 minutes until light golden brown. Cool, and then top with the following cocoa glaze:

1 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons milk

Whisk until smooth, then drizzle on the shortbread from a snipped baggie or a plastic squeeze bottle. Top with the reserved M&M's...if you chose to reserve them, that is.

Then I have just one more picture to share. This was our breakfast yesterday morning--a ham, cheese, and veggie scramble with the last of the Z bread for toast. It was so beautiful, that I was compelled to take a picture and share. But the main thing I want to brag about is not the beauty of the dish itself, but the fact that this scramble was made with swiss chard, herbs, and sweet peppers and topped with fresh tomatoes--all of which were grown in my garden!! Can you believe it? It's mid-November! I guess global warming has a few upsides. ;-)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Great Day for Blue States!

If you'll pardon my non-culinary rant--a blue herring if you will--YYYYIIIPPPPEEEEE! It's a great day in America! Not only did the Dems take back the House, we may also still get the Senate by Christmas. ;-) Plus, we will have the very first female Speaker of the House, the first Muslim was just elected to Congress, we now have the majority of governorships, and Rumsfeld is quitting to boot? It's like my lungs are filled with fresh air for the first time in 12 years! WHOO-HOO! I was at my friends' house watching returns until after 1:00am last night. At first, there was some tension and much cursing from the brilliant political scientist in our midst, but soon, we were busting out the bubbly--literally! This was quite a change from the same party two years ago when a pall settled over the crowd early on, crickets began to chirp, and then quietly, people began to head home and take to their beds to curl up into a fetal position and cry, moaning, "Not again! Not again!" Personally, I think it was my cookies that pushed the tipping point this time. (Let Colbert have his Red State cake--harumph!) Ok, thank you for indulging me. Now back to our regularly-scheduled baking program...

There has been much to-do of late about whole grains. A big part of it is the repercussions from all the low-carb diets, I'm sure. (What the the h#ll IS whole-grain WHITE bread, anyway? Does anyone know? It makes me uncomfortable like irradiated beef and other genetically-modified foods do.) Another factor may be the publication of King Arthur Flour's new whole-grain baking book that all the blogging bakers are on about. Not that I have it, yet, mind you. I usually wait to find books on half.com--I'm just that cheap! But in the spirit of incorporating some whole grains into my repertoire, I decided to convert my favorite sugar cookie recipe to include some whole-wheat graham flour. In my mind, I pictured the cookies coming out like a fancy graham cracker or those wonderful British "digestive biscuits." Well, they weren't quite that graham-y, but it did give the resulting cookies a great toothsomeness and a lovely, nutty flavor. Furthermore, I think the graham flour made the dough sturdier, and it was a little easier to roll out and cut, and the cookies also held their shape better. Then for the icing, I thought an infusion of maple syrup would be a perfect complement. Sure enough, they turned out GREAT! And most of them disappeared at last night's election returns event. So here ya go, and feel free to color your icing any way you like. After all, this is America!

Graham Cut-Outs with Maple Icing
(Source: adapted from Gale Gand's basic sugar cookie recipe)

3/4 cup granulated sugar
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (I like butter-flavored Crisco)
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat graham flour (next time, I might go with 2 cups AP and 1 1/2 cups graham flour--but I wanted to err on the side of caution for my first attempt)

In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the sugar, butter and shortening until fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla, baking powder and salt and mix. Add the flours and mix just until combined. Shape the dough into a large flat disk, kneading briefly if necessary to bring the dough together. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill 1 to 2 hours.

On a lightly-floured surface, roll out the dough 1/4-inch thick. Cut with your favorite shape of cookie cutter. Place on a Silpat- or parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees until the edges of the cookies start to turn golden brown, about 10-12 minutes, depending on the size of your cookies. Transfer to a rack to cool completely before glazing with the icing below.

Maple Icing:

1 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1-2 tablespoons whole milk or half-n-half

Whisk the ingredients together. If you need to, add more milk until it reaches the desired consistency. (You really want this a bit runny. It will set as it dries.) You may also add food coloring to this icing. I find it easiest to put the icing in a plastic squeeze bottle, then outline the shape of the cookies first, and fill in with additional icing. Use a small offset spatula to evenly spread the glaze over the cookie, add sprinkles if you like, and then set aside to dry completely before stacking or packing.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Baking FRENZY...because I can!!

Friends, there was so much chaos last weekend because of the Halloween party that I have not had a proper chance to do the victory dance of a functioning oven (picture Roseanne Barr in her "Madonna-like leotard" from "Blonde and Bitchin," then when you've stopped snorting, I'll continue). I can't completely describe my deep, spiritual contentment as I pull out a tray of cookies after 15 minutes (the recipe said 12-15), and they are PERFECTLY done, caramel-brown on the bottom, and just turning golden on the top. Not scorched on one side and underdone on the other--but PERFECT! By the way, they were dang good cookies from my pal, Anna's website, not to mention, a handy way to use up extraneous Halloween candy that may be lingering about your house. Picture a peanut butter and honey cookie with a mini-Snickers inside. DELISH! So definitely check those out.

Then, of course, there was bread...oh yes, ridiculous amounts of bread. First, I made two white loaves from a poolish. But I accidentally fell asleep during the final proof, so they turned out tasty but squatty and unphotogenic (maybe YOU are!). But my second attempt of the weekend was a faaaabulous success. I made two loaves of the most byoo-tee-full sourdough challah. I would have never put those two things together, but it's delicious! You see, I was looking for an excuse to use some sourdough starter that I re-made this weekend. I had let my six-year-old King Arthur starter go bad at some point over the summer. But I always save some, dry it out, break it into pieces, and freeze it in case of just such an emergency. Then all you have to do is break it up more in the food processor, feed it with flour and a little honey or sugar and rehydrate it. Before you know, it will come back to yeasty, bubbly life, and you're back in baking business. Here's the recipe for the sourdough challah if you want to try your hand at it:

Sourdough Challah
(Source: www.baking911.com)

1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup very warm water (105 - 110 degrees F)
1 Tablespoon active dry yeast (I used instant)
1 Tablespoon honey
7+ cups bread flour (High gluten with a bit of barley flour-or unbleached all-purpose)
2 tsp salt
3 large eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil (approximately)
1 egg yolk mixed with a few drops water
poppy seeds (I used black onion seeds)

Mix starter, water, yeast, and honey and let it bubble up while you do next step. In a large bowl mix 4 cups of the flour and salt. Make a well in the center of the flour/salt mixture and add eggs and oil. Add the frothy yeast mixture and stir with a thick-handled wooden spoon or paddle if you have one.

Add flour until the mixture pulls away from the bowl. It need not be smooth. Sprinkle flour on a counter or kneading board and put the dough in the middle. Scrape as much as you can from the mixing bowl and then wash the bowl for use in a later step. Knead the bread adding flour until it is smooth and elastic. It should feel like a baby's bare bottom when you pat it.

Place the dough in the mixing bowl which you have oiled. Cover with waxed paper and a tea towel and set it in a warm place to rise. It is ready when you can see your finger marks in the dough after you poke it. Turn it out on the board/counter and mash it down to remove large air bubbles. Braid into two or four loaves and place on oiled cookie sheets. Let rise for another half hour.

Set oven to 350F. Glaze leaves with egg yolk mixture and sprinkle liberally with poppy seeds. Bake for about a half hour rotating the trays in the oven. Loaves should sound hollow when thumped. Let cool.

And then, just when you think there couldn't possibly be any more bread, there was a knock on my door last evening as my own challah dough was still proofing. Mind you, we live in the middle of nowhere, and no one is ever just "in the neighborhood." But there on my doorstep was my beloved friend, June, bearing the most marvelous of gifts, a loaf of the infamous Z bread, still warm from the oven! Now I know the Good Book says that greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another. But I'd say a very close second is the selfless act of baking the Z bread for a friend (without the hideous wrinkly bits they call raisins that I hate, it should be noted), and then immediately driving a half an hour north to deliver it, still warm and steamy to its intended consumer when she could have just given it to me today at work. That woman gets a free pass straight through the Pearly Gates for that utmost of loving acts! Just look at its glossy brown loveliness. And oy, the toast that it makes! Divine! Naturally, I swapped her for one of the challah loaves, as it was only right.

That has to be all, right? You'd think so! But even as I type, there is some sugar cookie dough chilling in the fridge, waiting to be rolled out and cut into cute little United States shapes for an election results gathering tomorrow night after pub trivia. Someone help me! I need an intervention! But remember, I have been ovenless for TWO MONTHS! Let me have my fun! Oh, and speaking of the elections, whatever your political persuasion or issue, please get out there and make your voice heard at the polls tomorrow. Despite the fact that this is a mid-term election, it is one of unprecedented importance. (Thus endeth the PSA...I've got more cookies to make.)

Friday, November 03, 2006

A quick, "cheater" soup...

Well, gang, I have relatively little to report in terms of cuisine this week. As you can imagine, we are still living off off the leftovers from the Halloween party! But after last night, we are down to just half a cheese ball and some veggies and dip which are nice pre-functions to have around any time, so that's fine. For dinner, we had the last of the stuffed mushrooms and the remaining portion of tomato tart. But I wanted something else, something NEW. Still, the thrifty part of me wanted to use up any extraneous party food. And, I should also mention, there was a light snow falling last evening and the fuel oil company missed our delivery this week, so we were chilled and needed to be warmed up. Soup seemed just the ticket!

Now this was a total "cheater" soup, but it was quick and easy and very satisfying. I made a version of Italian Wedding Soup by bringing about 12 cups of beef broth and some granulated garlic (maybe 2 teaspoons, or to taste) to a boil--homemade would be ideal, but the stuff in paper boxes works very well--and then added about three cups of shredded Swiss chard. Traditionally, escarole is the green of choice in this soup, but by some miracle, we still had Swiss chard in the garden, so I used that instead, and it was delicious. I cooked the chard for about fifteen minutes or so in the broth, then I added about a cup of dried orzo (although any small pasta would do, ditalini or pastini, for other examples), and cooked that until it was tender, another 9 or 10 minutes. Finally, I added a couple dozen small, pre-fab meatballs left over from the party (which I had nuked for five minutes from frozen), and stirred it all up. Before serving, I sprinkled on some freshly-shredded parmesan, and that was that. YUM! I just thought some of you might like a quick, weeknight soup idea for a chilly November evening. Enjoy!