Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Staggered, Ongoing Christmas...

I had SUCH a busy semester, that I feel like I'm still constantly behind on everything and always playing catch up. So here we are, looking at New Year's, and I'm not even finished with Christmas gifts yet! I have a whole bunch of friends--both local and distant--who have yet to receive holiday treats from me. And I didn't even take cookies to the neighbors like I have done every year since moving here. *sigh* Well, thank goodness that there are 12 days of Christmas! I pray I'll be finished by Epiphany.

To celebrate my friends at karaoke last night, I made a huge bucket of very special snack mix to take a share. It's based on a recipe from Bon Appetit, but I had to make some substitutions based on the ingredients that I could find locally. For example the recipe called for small whole wheat circles, but who can find such a thing in this town? Also, I could only find Wasabi peas which the recipe warned against, so I swapped out those pea pod crisp thingies. I used mostly cashews instead of peanuts (personal preference), and since I could only find Terra Chips and not Terra Stix, I swapped out veggie straws. But those are basically colored Styrofoam, so next time, I will use the Terra Chips or try to find the Stix in Burlington or order them online.

BA Party Mix
(Source: Bon Appetit)
Yield: 12 cups

4 cups Bugles (original flavor)
3 cups whole wheat sesame pretzel rounds or other small pretzels
2 cups roasted unsalted peanuts
1 cup raw shelled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1 cup store-bought roasted green peas (not wasabi flavor)
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
12 large garlic cloves, crushed
2 tablespoonsWorchestershire sauce
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon English mustard powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika plus more for sprinkling
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups Terra Stix

Preheat oven to 250°. Combine the first 5 ingredients in a large bowl. Set aside.

Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Add garlic and gently cook to infuse butter, about five minutes. Strain into a small bowl, pressing to extract garlic juices; discard garlic. Stir in Worcestershire, Dijon mustard, mustard powder, salt, paprika, and pepper. Pour over mixture in bowl and gently toss to coat.
Divide mixture between 2 baking sheets and spread in an even layer. Bake, stirring every 15 minutes, until dry and toasted, about 1 hour. Sprinkle mixture with a few pinches of paprika. Toss and let cool completely on baking sheets (party mix will become crispy as it cools).

Transfer party mix to a large bowl. Add Terra Stix and toss to mix well.

DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 week ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.

Update (1/1/15): My friends liked this mix so much, that I actually made a third batch! This time, I used mixed nuts and Terra Chips, which added great pops of color. I also pureed the garlic in the butter and added it to the marinade instead of straining it out (NEVER TOO MUCH GARLIC!), and I added the veggie stix (I had a bag left over) to the mix before baking so they soaked up some of the marinade and acually tasted like something in the end. Lastly, I added a big squeeze of sriracha to the marinade to give the snack mix a bit of a kick. These were definite improvements that I would repeat.

In addition to baggies of the special snack mix, I wanted to make mini loaves of the most awesome banana nut bread in Christendom to take to some of my friends at trivia tonight. But I couldn't find any disposable loaf pans at the store. I was perusing the holiday clearance aisles when I spotted some cute silicone baking molds in the shape of little Christmas village houses and churches--and they were 50% off! (There are some perks of procrastinating on your Christmas baking.) Aren't these little cakes just PRECIOUS, especially after a snowstorm of powdered sugar??

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Accidentally Eating Healthily BEFORE January

Cyd was hungry, but as usual, she couldn't be bothered to go out into the kitchen and actually cook something. So I saw this recipe from Bon Appétit for Chile and Olive Oil Fried Eggs with Avocado and Sprouts scrolling past in my Facebook news feed, and thought, PERFECT--quick, healthy, and looks yummy! Of course, I didn't have any sprouts on hand, so I threw on some fresh spinach from a local farm, Rehoboth Homestead, and I used goat cheese in place of feta. Still, it was DELISH, and so good for you!

Chile-and-Olive-Oil-Fried Eggs with Avocado and Sprouts
(Source: adapted from Bon Appetit, January 2015)
Servings: 2

1 cup sprouts (such as sunflower, radish, or alfalfa)
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large eggs
crushed red pepper flakes
2 sprouted grain tortillas or flatbreads
hot sauce (for serving)
1 ounce feta
avocado slices and lime wedges (for serving)

Toss sprouts with lime juice in a small bowl; season with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high. When oil is hot, crack both eggs into skillet and season with salt and pepper. Oil should be bubbling around eggs from the start. Cook, rotating skillet occasionally, until whites are golden brown and crisp at the edges and set around the yolk (which should be runny), about two minutes. Add red pepper flakes to oil and remove pan from heat.

Meanwhile, heat tortillas over a gas burner until just warmed and slightly charred in spots (or warm in the oven or a toaster oven).

Mound sprouts on tortillas and top with fried eggs. Spoon chile oil from skillet around and drizzle with hot sauce. Crumble feta over, and serve with avocado slices, lime wedges, and more hot sauce.

Friday, December 26, 2014

MERRY (Belated) CHRISTMAS 2014!

Like a tardy Christmas miracle, Cyd finally arose from her sick bed late this afternoon in a somewhat chipper mood (chipper for her, anyway) and declared that she was very hungry. So we prepared the holiday feast that was meant for yesterday: Prime rib coated with a wet rub of minced garlic (about a thousand cloves), cracked black pepper, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, coarse salt, and my new favorite Green Mountain Mustard (Clove Encounter with garlic and oregano), skin-on red and yellow potato wedges sprinkled with Cajun seasoning and roasted underneath the prime rib, and Prince William vegetable medley (green and yellow wax beans, baby carrots and broccoli florets) in a warm vinaigrette. And I doused both the meat and potatoes with a savory onion au jus before serving. Oh, and mud pie for dessert! ‪#‎nailedit‬ ‪#‎MerryChristmastoUs‬

Ice cream pies are about the easiest dessert you can make, and still, everyone is always impressed. This one is my very favorite! I bought a chocolate crumb crust and a carton of all-natural coffee ice cream, and by the time I got home from the store, the ice cream was softened enough to scoop it all into the crust and smooth it with the back of a big spoon. Then I covered the pie and returned it to the freezer, and when it was frozen firm again, I topped it with some leftover ganache that I had in the fridge (reheated briefly in the microwave), chopped roasted almonds, and garnished with whipped cream. TA-DAH, Marvelous Mud Pie!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Karaoke and Cookies

This year has had its ups and downs with more than our fair share of downs, I would say. One of the pervasive issues has been my roommate's almost constant illness for which, after countless tests, the doctors still can't form an apt diagnosis nor an effective treatment plan. As she is often down for the count, that leaves me on my own a lot, and as a very gregarious and highly extroverted person, that is a real bummer.

So last summer, I auditioned for a musical revue at the college where I teach and made friends with lots of people in the large cast. I started going to karaoke with them one or even two nights a week, and then this semester, I performed with most of the same gang in Legally Blonde the Musical, which was a BLAST! Though I've had some tough times this year, the best and happiest moments have had one common denominator: I spent them with these amazing theatre geeks that welcomed me into their strange little family of friends, even though I am the decrepit old lady of the group. (Tee hee.)

Sadly, Cyd was sick again today, so I spent Christmas in the kitchen alone, baking cookies while listening to the Into the Woods soundtrack. But later, I will join my theatre pals to see Into the Woods, and then attend a special Christmas karaoke night. To show my appreciation to my friends for accepting me into their crazy gang, I wanted to make festive packages of homemade cookies for them. I could have made something very fancy, but I recently participated in a discussion on Facebook, and when asked to name their favorite Christmas cookie, almost everyone in the thread mention the same one, though by many different names: Mexican Wedding Cookies, Russian Tea Cakes, Butternuts/Butterballs, Polvorones, or Snowballs. So that's what I decided to make...with much love to friends at the holiday season.

Snowball Cookies
Source: Cooking Classy
Yield: 2 1/2 dozen (I only got about two dozen)

1 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoon cornstarch
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans (I used a whole cup)
1 1/2 - 2 cups powdered sugar, for coating

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix butter on medium speed until creamy, about 20 seconds. Blend in 2/3 cup powdered sugar and salt. Mix in vanilla. Sprinkle cornstarch over mixture (just so it doesn't blend into one area), then with mixer set on low speed slowly add in flour and mix just until combine. Stir in pecans. 

Scoop dough out one tablespoon at a time and roll into a ball, then place balls on Silpat or parchment paper lined baking sheets and bake in preheated oven for 15-17 minutes, until bottom edges are lightly golden (don't underbake these). Remove from oven and allow to cool several minutes then while cookies are still warm, pour two cups powdered sugar into a bowl and roll cookies in powdered sugar. Transfer to a wire rack to cool then once cookies are cool, roll in powdered sugar once more, this time to generously coat. Store cookies in an airtight container.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Chopped: Lebanese-Style

I had no desire to get dressed and go to the store today to buy something to make for dinner, so I started digging around in the fridge and unearthed some leftover brown lentils. Then I made some steamed rice, caramelized a couple of onions and some garlic in olive oil, added some cumin and a good splash of hot pepper vinegar, and TA-DAH, mujadarrah--Lebanese lentils and rice with fried onions--served with a big dollop of Greek yogurt (or sour cream)! ‪#‎MeatlessTuesday‬


4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons butter
2 large sweet onions, very thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 1/2 cups cooked brown lentils
1 1/2 cups steamed rice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon hot pepper vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

plain Greek yogurt (or sour cream)

Add two tablespoons of the olive oil and butter to a skillet over medium heat and cook the onions until dark golden brown. In the last five minutes of cooking the onions, add the garlic and continue cooking. 

Reheat the lentils (I microwaved mine), then combine with the steamed rice. Drizzle in another couple of tablespoons of olive oil, sprinkle in the cumin and hot pepper vinegar, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with a big dollop of Greek yogurt or sour cream.

Follow-up 12/24: If you have leftovers, the next day for breakfast/brunch, reheat the mujadarrah and top with a couple of fried or poached eggs, douse with hot sauce, and top with sour cream. YUM!!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

An Anglophile's Birthday

My friend, Dana, was having her 30th birthday party, and her husband, Jon, wanted to celebrate her with a group dinner inspired by her two favorite shows: Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey. He called it The Feast of Beasts, and he prepared goose, venison, and elk, and also roasted root vegetables. I think I may have misunderstood the assignment, as he went medieval, and I went with English pub food--Toads in the Hole and Mushy Peas. Oh well. It was a gesture, Claree, and a tasty one at that!

Toads in the Hole with Onion Gravy
(Source: adapted from Jamie Oliver)

sunflower oil (I might omit this next time)
8 large quality sausages (I used 10 beer-infused brats)
4 sprigs fresh rosemary (I did not use this)

For the onion gravy:
2 large red onions, peeled and sliced (I used sweet onions)
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
2 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 level tablespoon organic vegetable stock powder, or 1 vegetable stock cube (I used a teaspoon of mushroom soup base)

For the batter:
1 1/4 cups milk
1 cup AP flour
1 pinch salt
3 eggs

Mix the batter ingredients together, and put to one side. To make the batter to go huge, the key thing is to have an appropriately-sized baking tin – the thinner the better – as we need to get the oil smoking hot.

Put just under a half inch of sunflower oil into a baking tin, then place this on the middle shelf of your oven at its highest setting (475ºF). Place a larger tray underneath it to catch any oil that overflows from the tin while cooking. When the oil is very hot, add your sausages. Keep your eye on them and allow them to colour until lightly golden. (My Yorkshire pudding turned out quite greasy, so in the future, I would either cut way back on the oil or omit it altogether and just use the rendered fat from the sausages.)

At this point, take the tin out of the oven, being very careful, and pour your batter over the sausages. Throw a couple of sprigs of rosemary into the batter. It will bubble and possibly even spit a little, so carefully put the tin back in the oven, and close the door. Don't open it for at least 20 minutes, as Yorkshire puddings can be a bit temperamental when rising. Remove from the oven when golden and crisp.

For the onion gravy, simply fry off your onions and garlic in the butter on a medium heat for about five minutes until they go sweet and translucent. You could add a little thyme or rosemary if you like (I used 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme). Add the balsamic vinegar and allow it to cook down by half. Add the bouillion or soup base plus a cup of water. Allow to simmer until it reaches a desired consistency, and you'll have a really tasty onion gravy. Serve at the table with your Toads in the Hole, mashed potatoes, greens and baked beans or maybe a green salad if you're feeling a little guilty! (I served mine with mushy peas, recipe to follow.)

Mushy Peas
(Source: adapted from All Recipes)
Serves 8

2 lbs. frozen green peas
3/4 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Bring a shallow pot of lightly salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add frozen peas, and cook for three minutes, or until tender. (I nuked mine for about ten minutes with a little water added.)

Drain peas, and transfer to a blender or large food processor. Add cream, butter, salt and pepper to peas, and process until blended, but still thick with small pieces of peas. Adjust seasonings to taste, and serve immediately.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Cookie Party 2014 and My All-Time FAVORITE Cookie!

Preparations for this year's Padula Cookie Party began rather disastrously. Because of last week's snow storm, we had to have a makeup day for finals on Saturday (UGH!!), so I was busy at school all day. Thus, I had precious little time to get my cookies ready for the exchange yesterday.

I had decided to make my all-time favorite cookie, Chocolate-Glazed Pecan Toffee Bars, from a special Christmas cookie volume by The Joy of Cooking. However, the snow storm screwed me over in another way. As you can see in the picture, the snow from the roof dumped into a big mountain just inside the fence and porch railing, giving my youngest dog, Dollop, the opportunity to scale said mountain and access the shortbread dough that I (stupidly) had chilling on the porch rail.

It also gave her a possible means to escape, so at one point, we panicked and thought she had run away (and possibly been hit on the busy road in front of the house). That about gave me a heart attack, but when we realized that she was safe on the other side of the house--thank God--I found the base of my quadruple batch of cookies looking like this (which made me want to kill that little b*tch with my own bare hands):

So I had to make another half batch of dough to repair the damage, which set me even further behind. When I finally left the house, I was extremely late and in a panic, and I didn't realize that my roommate had parked her car directly behind me, which she never does. Unfortunately, I came to realize this fact when I smashed into her car and dented it. I was running short on Christmas miracles today, that's for sure! But when I arrived at the lovely luncheon and saw my friends and all of the delicious German food that Janice and Domenica had lovingly and painstakingly prepared, from that point on, my troubles began to seem miles away. Here's a short photo essay of the grand affair:

The place setting, complete with the traditional German pickle ornament.
The beautiful Weihnachten tablescape.
Christmas dolls that Janice and Domenica made. Their bodies are figs, and their heads are walnuts. So cute!

The delicious German meal! Clockwise from the bottom: There was smoked ham from the German butcher in Lacolle, QC, sweet and sour red cabbage (rotkohl), potato pancakes with homemade applesauce and sour cream, cheesy spaetzle, and (in the middle), these ginourmous, fluffy, lemon-scented dumplings with butter.
A sampling of desserts, including German cookies, and this amazing cake called a Schichttorte that Domenica made that had 20 layers then was covered in chocolate and garnished with almonds. WOW!
This year's cookies ready to be swapped! (I put mine in the cute little Santa and Rudolph bags in the middle of the table.)

I made EIGHT batches of the toffee bars (=128 pieces), which was plenty for the cookie party, for another Christmas gathering with different group of friends that evening, and I still had a lot left over. Today was an extremely difficult day at school, not only because I needed to get all my final grades done (seven classes' worth), but because the president had informed us that we would be facing layoffs and would be informed today. So we all got to sit at our desks most of the day, waiting for the phone to ring to find out if we still had a job or not. JUST TERRIBLE! Thus, I decided to bring the remainder of the cookies in to share with my colleagues to cheer us all up a little. Here's what was left by this afternoon. I think people liked them. (Tee hee.)

Chocolate-Glazed Toffee Bars
(Source: adapted from The Joy of Christmas Cookies)

Grease an 8 x 8-inch baking pan (double for 9x13, quadruple for a half sheet pan)

Whisk together thoroughly:
2/3 cups AP flour
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
Sprinkle over the top: 4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

Using a pastry blender, two knives, or your fingertips, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Sprinkle over the top and stir in to blend two teaspoons milk. Knead until the milk is distributed and the particles begin to hold together. If necessary, add a teaspoon or two more milk, until the mixture holds together but is not wet. (Alternatively, in a food processor, process the dry ingredients and butter in on/off pulses until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs; be careful not to overprocess. A bit at a time, add the milk, and process in on/off pulses until the particles begin to hold together; if necessary, add just enough additional milk so the mixture holds together but is not wet.) Firmly press the dough into the pan to form a smooth, even layer. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the chilled dough for 10 minutes; set aside to cool slightly. Toast, stirring occasionally in a baking pan, until very lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes: 1 1/2 cups chopped pecans (I do this in a dry skillet on the stove top.) Set aside to cool.

Combine in a medium, heavy saucepan and, stirring frequently, bring to a boil over medium heat:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons clover honey
1 tablespoon milk
1/8 teaspoon salt

Boil the mixture, uncovered, for 3 minutes; remove from the heat. Stir in the toasted pecans along with one teaspoon vanilla. Spread the mixture evenly over the baked layer. Bake until the crumb mixture is bubbly, golden brown, and just slightly darker at the edges, 17 to 20 minutes. Remove the pan to a rack to cool slightly.

Sprinkle over the top: 1/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips. Let stand for several minutes until the chocolate chips partially melt, then smooth across the surface with a table knife to partially spread the chocolate. (The surface should not be completely covered with chocolate. I prefer it to be evenly covered, so I use another couple/few tablespoons of chocolate chips.) Sprinkle over the top two tablespoons finely chopped pecans.

Let the chocolate cool until thickened but still slightly soft, then cut into bars; let cool completely before lifting the bars from the pan. Retrace the cuts to separate the bars, if necessary.

Yield: Twenty-four 2-2/3 x 1-inch bars (I prefer to cut 16.)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

My Book Club Goes Down Undah

For my book club this time around, we read this terrific book by an Australian author named Liane Moriarty. It was very well done, and a real page-turner. Even though I am in the thick of finals, I still managed to read it in a week. I could hardly put it down! So for our food theme, of course, we headed Down Under.

For an appetizer, I brought a shrimp ring, but I chucked the pre-packaged cocktail sauce, and fashioned a sauce with mayo, BBQ sauce, and hot sauce. Shrimp in a Barbie Sauce, get it?? Ha ha.
Other appetizers included these little puff pastry cups  with baked brie (bottom left) and sausage rolls (bottom right--something a hostess serves at a party in the book). At the top right was some crusty bread spread with a sundried tomato pesto, and also appearing in this photo (top left) was a delicious lamb curry pie that one of the book club members bought at a pie shop in Montreal. It was DELISH!

Because I knew there would be several other meat dishes at this affair, the entree I brought was a vegetarian cottage pie with lentils, butternut squash, and mushrooms. Everyone loved it, and I got several requests for the recipe. I honestly think it would fool carnivores, as it has a very "meaty" flavor and texture. Here's how I made it:

Vegetarian Cottage Pie with Lentils, Butternut Squash, and Mushrooms

Mushroom, Squash and Lentil Filling:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, diced
8 oz. sliced crimini (Baby Bella) mushrooms
10 oz. frozen cubed butternut squash
2 cups cooked brown lentils
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons double-concentrated tomato paste
1 generous teaspoon red curry paste
1/2 cup beef gravy (or two tablespoons corn starch, plus one cup of beef broth)

Potato Topping:
3 1/2 to 4 cups mashed potatoes (already prepared on the drier/chunkier side)
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup shredded cheese of your choice (I used an Italian blend)
garlic and herb seasoning, to taste
pinch of paprika
sprinkling of grated parmesan

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and saute the onions, celery, carrots, and mushrooms until the veggies are tender. Stir in the squash, lentils, thyme, pepper, tomato paste, red curry paste, and gravy. (If you don't have gravy, after the initial veggies are tender, stir in two tablespoons of corn starch and a cup of beef stock and cook until thickened, then stir in the rest of the filling ingredients.) Put the filling into an ovenproof baking dish.

Combine the mashed potatoes with cream, shredded cheese, and seasoning. Stir to combine. Spread evenly on the top of the veggie filling, rake all over with the tines of a fork, and sprinkle with paprika and grated parmesan cheese.

Bake at 350 F for about 30 minutes until GB&D.

Here are just some of the dessert offerings (clockwise from bottom left): Anzac biscuits, mini cherry cheesecakes, and some sort of chocolate bars with chopped-up biscuits in them called Hedgehog Slices.
The dessert  brought was a baked rice custard with cinnamon and nutmeg (that all swam to the right because of my wonky oven, no doubt) and orange-infused dried cranberries in place of the traditional (but icky, IMHO) raisins. It was fine, but not mind-blowing or anything.
The real showstopper of the evening was this pavlova (also featured in the book). I look how the chef decorated it with strawberries and kiwis--red and green for Christmas. How festive!