Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas Wrap(-up)

Hello out there in cyber-land! Did you have a good Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa)? Mine was quite nice. As I predicted, Christmas Eve saw me at my dear friend Lee Ann's house, along with her mom, her husband, his mom, his brother and his companion, and of course, my two favorite people, K and E. These ridiculously cute little girls provided endless entertainment over the course of the evening. Among my favorite moments was K's fascinating retelling of the Nativity story which concluded with an original song that she's been working on that I think would be perfect for the soundtrack to High School Musical 4. ;-) Here's a snippet, though I missed the first part because she started before I could turn the camera on! (The first line goes, "All of us together, we can make it better....)

But the best moment of the night for me was when the girls opened the gifts I brought for them, especially little E. You see, E is a girly-girl. She LOVES pink. She loves purses (I gave her one with the Disney princesses on it last year). And recently, she has gotten into "cooking" (preparing simulated/plastic meals for her family...tee hee). So I found the most fabulous thing for her this year--something so awesome, I wanted to keep it for myself. It was the Barbie Dream Kitchen, and you have to know that Barbie's kitchen is PINK! This is E, admiring her gift rather worshipfully (and I don't blame her). However, I think I made out pretty well, too, as Lee Ann will be taking me to see "Hairspray the Musical" in Montreal in April. YIPPEE!

Of course, before we opened our gifts, we FEASTED. The family tradition is that everyone gets to choose one favorite food to be included in the Christmas meal. Happily, someone else already requested shrimp as a pre-function and ribeyes for the main course, so two of my favorites were already on the menu. Therefore, I asked if Evelyn, Lee Ann's precious mom, would make the same treat that she made me for my birthday. The recipe is called Pecan Puffs, but it should be called Pecan CRACK! It's really very simple--basically, meringued pecans--but they are SO yummy and downright addictive! This recipe, friends, is my (belated) holiday gift to you--though it may interfere with any weight loss resolutions that you've made for the new year. ;-)

Pecan Puffs
(Source: Evelyn Thomas)

1 egg white
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2-3 cups pecan halves

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Whip the egg white until stiff. Mix in the brown sugar, baking soda, and salt and beat until smooth and glossy. Gently fold in the pecans, making sure that each pecan half gets completely coated. Spread in a single layer on a large, greased cookie sheet (I used a half sheet lined with a Silpat). Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool on the pan before removing and breaking the pecans apart. Once completely cooled, store in an airtight container.

Notes: I used two cups of pecans in the batch pictured, but I wish I had used closer to three cups. I did not anticipate how much the meringue would puff up around each nut, and I prefer a greater nut-to-meringue ratio in each bite. Then again, two cups' worth just barely fit on one pan, so if you push it to three cups, be advised that you'll probably have to use two pans. Also, good luck smoothing that sticky stuff out into a single layer! At some point, I gave up and fished each pecan out one-by-one and placed it on the prepared pan, which took roughly forever! If anyone has a better idea, please share it in the comments section.

Once we had stuffed ourselves and sung carols together and opened our gifts, the girls began preparing for bed and for Santa to arrive. First, their daddy took them outside to sprinkle some sparkly reindeer bait around on the ground, and most importantly, up on the roof. Back inside, they chose some special cookies that they had decorated themselves to leave for Santa, along with a glass of milk for the jolly old elf to wash them down with. As you may have already gathered, K and E are both big animal lovers, so along with treats for Santa, they also left carrots for Rudolph and the gang, along with a dish of water for the reindeer to drink. How thoughtful was that?

When the girls had jammies on and were heading to bed, I said my goodbyes, and headed a couple of blocks over to my friend Janice's house to catch the end of their annual Feast of the Seven Fishes. I didn't make it in time for any of the fish dishes, but I came right as they were tucking into an amazing spread of desserts, mostly prepared by Janice's daughter, Dominica, a gal after my own heart (though she has that Martha gene and can make everything much prettier than I ever could, including her baked goods!). Of course, I was already stuffed to the...ahem...gills, but that didn't stop me from indulging in a few special Italian Christmas cookies! My favorites were the ones that were like Mexican wedding cookies or Russian tea cakes (buttery, nut-filled balls rolled in powdered sugar) and this pistachio wreath creation that was basically a whole bunch of roasted pistachios held together by a tender innuendo of dough. Yum!

After a good bit of fellowshipping with the Padula Family, it was time for the "midnight mass" (11pm) at the local Episcopal church. It was a lovely service, marred only by an annoying dog that barked his head off all through the new rector's sermon. Afterward, as I was coming out of the church, I was amused to note that the pesky critter actually belongs to the good reverend, and was sitting dejectedly out in the snow by the rectory gate, obviously trying to say "Shut up, Daddy, and come home and see me now!" Ha ha.

I'm afraid that I don't have much to report about Christmas Day proper. The dogs and I spent a quiet day at home. Cyd sent them each a special chewie wrapped in lime green tissue paper which, of course, I let them open themselves (except for Rosie, the ancient basset hound, who was too dumb to figure it out on her own!)

As for me, I spent the day watching a marathon of the first season of "The Big Bang Theory" that my wonderful friend, Kurt, sent me for Christmas (I LOVE that show!) and fiddling with the TomTom (GPS) that Cyd got me. (Yeah!) And because I was completely worn out from all of the holiday cooking and baking, and because I only had to answer to myself on Dec. 25, I had the most shameful of guilty pleasure Christmas dinners. In fact, if it weren't so delicious, I would be too embarrassed to tell you about it. But it's so good, I simply must recommend it to my loyal readership.

Recently, when I was shopping at Hannaford, I spied a box of something called "Bubba Burgers" in a freezer end cap. They had two flavors--sweet onion and jalapeno--and they made me giggle because they were Texas-shaped! Normally, I make my own burgers and eschew the pre-fab frozen varieties, but these sounded awfully good, especially the jalapeno ones. Plus, they were third-pounders, which is my personal preference on proper patty proportions (alliteration intended). The Bubbas were a bit pricey at eight-something a box (of six), but considering how much a fast food burger will set you back these days, they didn't seem all that extravagant--plus, it was my choice for my private Christmas feast (cheaper than the traditional roast beast, that's for sure!). So I splurged and bought a box of jalapeno Bubbas with the windfall of cash that I got from returning all the cans and bottles that had been piling up around here since this summer. (Yes, that's the kind of wild shenanigans that I get up to on my winter break--returning cans and bottles and then coming home to give the rabbit's cage a thorough scrubbing. Whoo-hoo...crazy fun!)

Anyhoo, to prepare my special Christmas meal, I toasted a thick slab of roasted-corn-and-jalapeno sourdough that my brick-oven buddies, John and Keith, sent me from Oregon (but any rustic, chewy loaf will do). I spread the toasted bread lightly with mayo, then laid on some slices of ripe avocado that I had sprinkled with lime juice and granulated garlic, then many slivers of red onion, and finally, the juicy, jalapeno Bubba burger with two slices of cheddar melted on top (leaving it open-faced and thus, easier to eat). HEAVEN HELP ME, it was among the best burgers that I've ever had! Burger lovers, listen up. You gotta try the Bubbas! I know, I know. You've probably moved from feasting mode to fasting mode by now, but remember them for your Superbowl menu.

YIKES! Are we talking about the Superbowl already? Sheesh! Next stop, 2009!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008



I trust that all travellers have made it safely to their appointed destinations? I got an email from my friend, June, and they had a difficult journey down to New Orleans, with one particularly gruesome 16 1/2-hour day's drive though the--unfortunately--dry counties of Alabama last Sunday. Then again, I don't feel very sorry for her, as she's already sent me taunting pictures of an amaryllis or some such tropical flower blooming in her mother's back yard, and family members enjoying the hot tub outside, with Christmas lights twinkling behind! BOO HISS!

Meanwhile, in our neck of the woods, they say the next storm is on the way. But so far, no sign of it, and I am determined to do some more party-hopping tonight. My longsuffering friend Lee Ann, who must be sick of me by now (having just attended her Christmas party Saturday night), has very kindly invited me over to spend Christmas Eve with her family. Then after the little girls have worn themselves out opening their presents, I will head just around the corner to my friends, the Padulas, for their annual Feast of the Seven Fishes, a deliciously fabulous Italian Christmas Eve tradition. Finally, I will drag myself away from all the savory fish dishes to attend Trinity Episcopal's lovely Christmas Eve "midnight" service (it starts at 11).

Of course, I can never go anywhere empty-handed. I have one last pan of maple cinnamon rolls in the freezer to take for the Padulas. As for dinner at Lee Ann's, I am bringing a yummy snack for us to munch on while we prepare the main courses. I was browsing a thread about appetizers on Chowhound recently, and I came across a recipe for a smoky and spicy black bean dip that sounded terrific from a poster calling him/herself the Good Health Gourmet. I doubled the recipe to make it party-sized and made a few minor adjustments, because I just can't help myself. Let me tell you, it is super-easy and DELISH, and surprisingly healthy, unlike many other rich dips of the season. I plan to serve it with some lower-fat, whole-grained tortilla chips so that maybe we'll carry a wee bit less guilt--and excess weight--into the new year! ;-)

Smoky and Spicy Bean Dip
(Source: adapted from
Chowhound's Good Health Gourmet)

2 (15.5-oz.) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
6 large garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 bunch fresh cilantro, mainly leaves (a generous cup, loosely packed)
juice of 2 limes
1/2 cup sour cream or yogurt (can be low- or nonfat to make it even healthier)
1-2 chipotles in adobo (I think one big one is plenty, and I like heat--but you do what you gotta do!)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (pimentón de la vera)
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a food processor, combine all ingredients except sugar, salt, and pepper. Process until smooth. Taste for seasoning, add sugar, salt and pepper to taste, and blend again thoroughly. If you prefer a thinner dip, continue processing and add water one tablespoon at a time until desired consistency is reached.

Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with two tablespoons of chopped cilantro if desired, and serve with baked tortilla chips, homemade whole-grain pita chips (dusted with cumin, paprika and salt), and/or crudités.

*If you're not cooking for a crowd, you may wish to halve this recipe.

Ok, so we'll have a healthy bean dip, but what would a Christmas feast be without some sinful sweets? Even though hot fudge sundaes are their family's Christmas Eve tradition, I will be bringing some lovely almond cloud cookies to add to the dessert offerings. I found the recipe on King Arthur's website, and I thought it might be like the confidences that I get in Montreal and love so much. As it turns out, these are a little different, a little denser (I think the confidences have some flour and also whipped egg whites). However, the almond cloud cookies are crisp and chewy and scrumptious, especially as I took it upon myself to gild the lily by dipping their bottoms in bittersweet chocolate. (Are you jealous? Tee hee). Because they are flourless, these cookies would be great for your gluten-free friends and/or for kosher holidays. And as they are simple drop cookies, they are so quick and easy--perfect for the chaotic Christmas kitchen (ooh! nice alliteration!).

Of course, I made a few wee changes to the recipe, but mainly because the King Arthur recipe calls for ten ounces of almond paste, and I could only find eight-ounce cans around here. So I scaled it down a bit. Also, I think the cookies taste PLENTY almond-y with just the almond paste, so I swapped out some vanilla for almond extract(s). Finally, I melted bittersweet chips with a little shortening, and when the cookies had cooled, I dipped them in the melted chocolate, then chilled them until firm. I also dusted the tops with powdered sugar to make them look fancier and more festive. Beautiful and YUMMY!

Almond Cloud Cookies
(Source: adapted from
King Arthur Flour)

8 ounces almond paste
3/4 cup sugar
2 small egg whites, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
few drops lemon oil, optional (but highly recommended!)
confectioners' sugar or glazing sugar, for topping

1) Preheat the oven to 325°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment or Silpats) two baking sheets.
2) Blend the almond paste and sugar until the mixture forms fine crumbs; this is best done in a stand mixer.
3) Add the egg whites gradually, while mixing, to make a smooth paste.
4) Stir in the flavorings.
5) Scoop the dough by heaping tablespoons onto the prepared pans.
6) Sprinkle the cookies heavily with confectioners' sugar, then use three fingers to press an indentation into the center of each cookie. (OOPS! I just realized that I forgot to do this! And I sprinkled them with powdered sugar after baking, not before. My bad. Oh well, next time.)
7) Bake the cookies for 20 to 25 minutes, until they're brown around the edges. Remove them from the oven, and let them cool right on the pan.

*If desired, after the cookies cool, melt one half cup bittersweet chocolate chips with half a tablespoon of shortening in a double boiler over gently simmering water. Dip the bottoms of the cookies in the melted chocolate and let cool and harden on a tray lined with waxed paper.

Have a very blessed holiday with your loved ones, my dear readers!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Harried Holidays

You know, baking holiday treats is fun. Christmas shopping certainly can be. Doing the dishes, and wrapping the presents--blech. Then there's trimming the tree, decking the halls, sending out Christmas cards (if you go in for that kind of thing, which I usually don't--I'm all about the email card with photo, and that's only IF I manage to take a cute holiday photo of the dogs, which I haven't), and all the other countless merry chores of the season. One of the downsides of all this to-doing is that, too often, making decent meals takes a backseat to making all the party food and homemade edible gifts. So after everything else is prepared, I simply make do with a sandwich or other miscellaneous nibbly bits (my favorite combination is either salami or summer sausage, a good cheese of some kind, and banana peppers, all sliced up and piled on a small plate--ta-dah, dinner is served!).

Once in awhile, though, I can't take the tyranny of cold cuts any longer, and I long for a proper dinner, especially on Sunday evenings. My favorite menu involves a ribeye and a baked potato, but yesterday, when I was digging around in the freezer looking for something or other, I came upon a package of pork chops that I forgot I had. Since I still had HOURS of kitchen clean-up to tend to from back-to-back baking projects, I didn't want to get too involved with any intricate dinner preparations. So I enlisted the help of my old pal, the crock pot, to produce a simple, but very tasty and satisfying supper.

I know, this looks like a big pile of orange-brown goo, but trust me--there was a tender and delicious pork chop under there somewhere! To make your own scrumptious pile of saucy pork, do as I did. First off, I seasoned the chops (4 to 6, on the thicker side) liberally with salt, pepper, and granulated garlic and coated them lightly with flour. In a large frying pan, I heated a couple tablespoons of butter with the same amount of olive oil. Then I browned the chops. When they were browned on both sides, I layered them in the bottom of the crock pot. Then I sauteed one large, chopped onion in the remaining oil and butter along with eight ounces of sliced fresh mushrooms and a few cloves of minced garlic.

When the vegetables were softened and starting to color, I deglazed the pan with about a half cup of white wine. Then I added one can of Campbell's Golden Mushroom Soup (stop hatin'--it's trashy but tasty, even though it has that unnatural orange hue) and one can of water and mixed it all together. I poured all of this saucy goodness into the crock pot, completely covering the meat, then I cranked that sucker up to high, and let it do its thing for about four hours until the pork chops were practically falling apart. You could serve this over egg noodles, but I love me some steamed rice (my dad was Hawaiian, so I eat rice with everything). Easy and yummy, and perfect for those harried days when you have many a holiday task to tend to. Furthermore, if you are experiencing the brutal cold snap that most of the country is enjoying, this is hearty fare that will stick to your ribs and help you to survive. (I'm so not kidding--I just looked down at the weather channel icon on my desktop, and it's currently 3 below, but with the vicious wind chill, it "feels like" -13! FUN! Needless to say, my taps are trickling...so to speak.)

Since I didn't start my crockpot until late in the afternoon, I knew I would need a substantial appetizer to keep me in good stead until dinner was ready. And I knew just what I wanted! Once I got myself out of my snowy driveway Saturday night and headed into town for Lee Ann's Christmas party, I was reflecting back on her party last year. I didn't remember many specifics about the potluck offerings, but I did recall a terrific warm artichoke dip that one of her neighbors brought. I was hoping that the same lady would come again, and bring that dip with her--and she did! I didn't want to be piggy and scarf the whole dish down myself. In the holiday spirit of giving, I showed restraint and shared with the other party guests. But what was to stop me from making my own at home? Nothing, that's what! The nice lady whose name, I believe, was Marcy, described the basics of the recipe to me last year, but I put a few of my own twists on it, as is my way. In any case, this stuff is INCREDIBLE! It is especially transcendent if you have dear friends on the other side of the country who will bake bread for you in their wood-fired oven, and mail a whole box of it to your doorstep as a Christmas surprise. But if you aren't that fortunate, any good, crusty loaf will serve the purpose.

Warm Artichoke Dip

2 cans artichoke hearts (I used about 2 cups from a jar of marinated artichokes, but I rinsed them in warm water to remove the excess oil then drained them well)
1 (8 oz.) brick cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup of mayonnaise (Marcy said one cup, but I found that a little too greasy for my tastes)
1 to 2 teaspoons dill weed (I prefer the larger amount)
1 teaspoon granulated garlic (better yet, use a couple/few cloves of freshly minced as I did)
1 (5 oz.) bag shredded parmesan (I shred my own parm, thank you, and I like about a cup here)
*then to Marcy's basic recipe, I added about 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper, a good pinch of cayenne, and a squeeze of fresh juice from half a lemon)

Blitz this all up in the food processor, then bake for about a half hour at 350 or until until brown and bubbly. (Marcy and her partner, Brooke, bake theirs in a large, shallow pie plate for more surface area to brown.) Serve with slices of your favorite crusty bread. I used a whole wheat sourdough baguette topped with sunflower seeds from the Zinn-Volkmann Bakery of Falls City, OR. Yum!

Take this to your next holiday party or make it for your family's Christmas dinner, and you're sure to get back an empty dish. People love this stuff, and with good reason!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Party-Hopping: 'Tis the Season

GOOD GRIEF! A glance at my Week-at-a-Glance reveals this:

Monday: Holiday Potluck at School
Tuesday: Padula Cookie Swap, Dinner at Sawatdee, Trivia at Geoffrey's Pub
Wednesday: Final Grades DUE!
Thursday: President's Holiday Brunch, Dinner at Vicky's Cabin in the Woods
Friday: Faculty Association Party at the Burgundy Room
Saturday: Heintz Family Christmas Party

Is my dance card full this holiday season, or what? Now I won't pretend that I made it to all of these events or contributed significantly to each. Still, with all of these parties and events, in addition to making treats for co-workers and getting packages of homemade goodies in the mail, I feel as if I've been baking non-stop! In fact, Sunday's entry should read: DO DISHES! They were piled to the ceiling when I finally faced the task today, and I had to do them in three separate sessions before I saw the end of it. WHEW! And mind you, this is only the week BEFORE Christmas! Help us!

Last night was my dear friend Lee Ann's Christmas party. As usual, guests were asked to bring either an appetizer or a dessert, and as usual, I brought both! These affairs tend to be rather heavy on the sweets, so I originally thought to bring just a savory offering. I decided to make one of my favorite finger foods, tortilla pinwheels. They are so easy, quite tasty, and a little whimsical, too--thus, perfect party fare. And I served them with a sidecar of my homemade salsa. I have been making this recipe for, geez, at least 15 years. I got it from an old friend, Naomi, back when I lived in a house full of crazy young people in Kankakee, IL in the early-to-mid-nineties, and we also had an extended "family" of friends and significant others who practically lived there, too. Naomi was one of that gang from Kankakee/Bourbonnais (shout out to those homies, and you know who you are!). However, and no disrespect intended to Naomi (who we affectionately called "Naonka" for reasons that I just can't explain here succinctly), but the recipe is rather....vague. I shall attempt to clarify it. By the bye, this recipe makes a SHLOAD of little pinwheels, so unless you're preparing them for a big gathering, I would cut this by half.

Naonka's Tortilla Pinwheels

2 packages cream cheese (we will assume two 8 oz. bricks), softened
1 carton sour cream (let's go with 16 oz. here)
1 package shredded cheddar cheese (who knows what size package? 8 oz?--let's say 2 cups)
1 small can diced green chiles (that's 4 oz.)
1 small can chopped black olives (that would be 4.25 oz.)
1 bunch green onions, finely chopped (bunches vary, of course, but I would say about 6 larger green onions or 8 smaller ones?)
*I also like to add a teaspoon or so of chili powder, about a half teaspoon of granulated garlic, and a good pinch of cayenne to this mixture, but that's just me.
1 package large flour tortillas (burrito size)

Mix all of the above ingredients (except the tortillas, of course). Spread a couple of tablespoons of the mixture on each tortilla then roll up and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight. The next day, unwrap each roll, slice into spirals (1/2 inch?), arrange decoratively on a platter, and serve with your favorite salsa.

The tortilla pinwheels were all that I was planning on taking to Lee Ann's party, but unfortunately, the annual Padula Cookie Swap had to be cancelled this year, and I had my heart set on making tassies--little bite-sized pies--for that occasion. So I decided to make them for the Heintz family party instead. Plus, Lee Ann's sweet little mom, Evelyn, is known to make pecan tassies, but Lee Ann promised her that she wouldn't haven't to cook anything for the party this time, encouraging her just to enjoy herself! So I made them in her honor. I actually made two different kinds of tassies, the traditional pecan pie-type (from Gourmet's Favorite Cookies: 1941-2008) which are simply OUTSTANDING, and also, a chocolate-almond version that was profiled in the latest issue of Bon Appetit. The chocolate-almond ones were very good, but I think they needed even more chocolate. Next time I make them, I might go so far as to double the amount of mini chips that the recipe calls for. And though I prefer the original pecan variety, it's kind of fun to have two different types of tassies on your tray (that sounds a little obscene if taken out of context). In the picture below, the chocolate-almond tassies are on the left, and the pecan tassies are on the right.

I should also note, I simply doubled the dough from the chocolate-almond/Bon Appetit recipe and used that to make the pecan tassies as well. The dough recipes are nearly identical, except that the chocolate-almond version calls for a little sugar in the dough and a pinch of salt, which I quite like. However, the chocolate-almond recipe calls for chilling the dough for at least two hours before rolling into little balls, then chilling again, then forming the shells and chilling yet again. Nonsense, I say! If you chill the dough that long initially, it will be nearly impossible to work with. I found this out the hard way. While I was making batch #1, I put the other half of the dough in my blast chiller (read: the front porch), and when I retrieved it less than a half hour later, it was hard as a rock! The pecan version, by contrast, does not call for any dough chilling at all. I recommend a compromise between the two recipes. Do not chill the dough beforehand or during the shaping process, but once you've formed one muffin tin's worth of shells, chill that one while you're working on the second. Then chill them both while you're mixing up the filling. The cold pastry cups will hold their shape better while baking, and shrinkage will be reduced (again, that sounds vaguely inappropriate, a la George Costanza...tee hee). All of the extra chilling just adds time and pointless fussiness. And I assure you, the pastry shells will turn out delectably tender and flaky without all the nonsense.

Pecan Tassies
Gourmet Magazine, April 1985)

1 stick (1/2 cup) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened slightly
3 ounces cream cheese, softened slightly
1 cup all-purpose flour
*I would add 1 tablespoon sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt to this dough.

1 large egg
3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/8 teaspoon vanilla (I used 1/2)
pinch salt

In a bowl, combine one stick of the butter and the cream cheese, stir in the flour, and form the dough into a ball. Divide the dough into 24 pieces and press the pieces into the bottom and up the sides of 24 small (2-tablespoon) muffin tins.

In a small bowl, beat the egg lightly with the brown sugar and stir in the pecans, the remaining tablespoon of butter, the vanilla, and a pinch of salt. Divide the filling among the pastry-lined tins, bake the tassies in a preheated 350° F. oven for 25 minutes, or until the filling is puffed slightly and the pastry is golden, and let them cool on a rack. Loosen gently with the tip of a paring knife to remove from tins. When completely cooled, store in an airtight container.

Makes 24 confections.

Chocolate-Almond Tassies
(Source: Bon Appetit Magazine, December 2008)

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 3-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all purpose flour

3/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons amaretto or other almond liqueur (I used 1 tablespoon of the liqueur plus 1/4 teaspoon almond extract)
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted almonds
1/4 cup mini semisweet chocolate morsels or chopped bittersweet chocolate

Beat butter, cream cheese, sugar, and salt in large bowl until blended. Stir in flour (dough will be soft and sticky). Scrape dough onto sheet of plastic wrap. Using plastic as aid, shape dough into disk. Cover and chill until firm, at least 2 hours. (I skipped this step and recommend that you do the same for reasons discussed above.) Roll dough into twenty-four 1-inch balls; place one dough ball in each of 24 mini (2x3/4-inch) muffin cups. Chill 15 to 20 minutes. (Again, I would skip the chilling here.) Using floured fingertips (also not necessary), press dough over bottom and up sides of each muffin cup, forming a shell. Chill until ready to use, up to one day.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk first five ingredients in medium bowl until blended. Stir in almonds and chocolate morsels. Spoon filling into shells. Bake tassies until crusts are golden brown and filling is set, 23 to 25 minutes. Let stand five minutes. Using small sharp knife, cut around each cookie to loosen, then turn out onto rack and cool completely.

Can be made three days ahead. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Santa's little helper...c'est moi!

Santa better bring me some nice presents this year, 'cuz I've been REAL GOOD! I have been baking non-stop for days, trying to get something homemade and yummy in the mail for friends and family. First off, I made some fruitcakes. Wait, wait...hear me out before you protest! Inspired by one of my favorite bloggers, I macerated dried blueberries, cherries, apricots, golden raisins, and candied ginger in orange juice, Grand Marnier, and dark rum. Then I folded the plumped and fragrant fruits into a pound cake batter that was lightly spiced with mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and a hint of cloves. YUM! It just smelled like Christmas--a fruitcake that even professed fruitcake haters would love! I'm afraid that I didn't take any pictures, because they were gifts, so I wasn't going to cut into them. And on the outside, the loaves just looked sort of brown and bumpy. But there's a good picture on Anapestic's blog. I have faith that mine looked like that on the inside. ;-)

I also devised a neat trick for mailing them safely. I looked for a decorative tin, but couldn't find one long enough, and special craft boxes were just too spendy. So I ended up buying plastic shoeboxes for just $1.20 each from Big Lots, packed the frozen and double-wrapped fruitcake in the box along with a small, bubble-wrapped jar of my homemade maple apple butter, filling any gaps with packing peanuts. Then I gift-wrapped the whole thing and secured it with a ton of packing tape before labelling it and dropping it at the local post office. Clever, eh? It looked festive, and it was lightweight (to save on shipping), but very sturdy and even reusable, thus, environmentally-friendly to boot! On a slight tangent, do you think the post office staff sees a lot of crazy-looking bakers with wild, unkempt hair, flour all over their fronts, and a smear of bittersweet chocolate on their cheeks running in five minutes before they close? I suspect it's not all that uncommon at this time of year...just saying.

Anapestic's Perfect Fruitcake
(Source: adapted from
Makes two large loaves

about 2 cups mixed dried fruit (I used 1/2 cup blueberries, 1/2 cup cherries, 1/2 cup apricots, 1/2 cup golden raisins, and 1/4 cup candied ginger)
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier
2 tablespoons dark rum
2 cups pecans
3/4 lb. butter, at room temperature
1 lb. granulated sugar
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 lb. all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon mace
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/8 teaspoon cloves

The day before you're going to bake the fruitcake, combine the dried fruits and the orange juice, Grand Marnier and rum. Cover and leave to macerate. (You can speed up the process by heating up the liquids first. The fruit will completely reconstitute in an hour or two.)

Sometime before you're going to bake the fruitcake, toast the pecans for about 12 minutes at 300 degrees. Be careful not to burn them. (I toasted mine in a dry frying pan for a few minutes instead.)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Prepare two large loaf pans (I sprayed glass loaf pans with flour-added cooking spray, cut out parchment for the bottoms of the pans, and then sprayed the paper, too). Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and spices. Mix well and reserve.

In your mixer, cream the butter thoroughly. Gradually add the sugar to the butter, and let them continue to mix for several minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Scrape the bowl down if necessary. Beat in the vanilla extract.

At low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients. When thoroughly combined, scrape the bowl down again, if necessary. At low speed, add the pecans. Add the fruit and rum mixture and fold in by hand until well blended.
Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake for about 85 to 95 minutes, or until the cake springs back slightly when pressed. Remove from oven and let cool in the pans for half an hour. Remove from pans and let rest on cooling rack until thoroughly cooled.

You can slice and serve the cake as soon as it's cool. You can wrap it in plastic and slice it a bit at a time. You can also wrap it in cloth, apply your spirit of choice, and then wrap it airtight for as long as you think wise. Add more spirits occasionally.

Then some other lucky people got lovely tins full of what the King Arthur bakers called Chocolate-Chip Walnut Mandelbrot, which is like Jewish biscotti. But as "mandel" means almond, and these have walnuts in them, I think they should be more properly called WALNUSSBROT. King Arthur originally posted the recipe back in September for Rosh Hashanah. However, an orthodox Jewish man wrote in to their Baker's Banter blog to say that they would never eat walnuts for Rosh Hashanah because the numerical value of the Hebrew word for walnut is the same as the word for sin, or something rabbinical like that. But as this recipe calls for oil rather than butter and includes all those symbolically-sinful walnuts, it seems a perfect choice for Hanukkah! Plus, they are sturdy, travel well, and stay fresh for a long time (having been purposefully dried out somewhat by being twice-baked). So they are also ideal for packing up and sending out as Hanukkah--or Christmas--gifts.

Chocolate Chip Walnussbrot
King Arthur Flour)

3 large eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups walnut pieces
coarse white sparkling sugar, optional

1) Beat together the eggs, oil, sugar, vanilla, and salt at medium-high speed until thickened and light-colored, about 5 minutes.
2) Beat in the flour and baking powder.
3) Mix in the chips and nuts. Cover and refrigerate for 3 hours, or overnight.
4) Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment or Silpats) two baking sheets.
5) Divide the dough into four even pieces, about 13 ounces each if you have a scale.
6) Working with one piece at a time, place the dough on the prepared baking sheet, shaping it into an 8" x 2" log. Repeat with the remaining pieces of dough, leaving at least 2" between them; you'll put 2 logs on each baking sheet.
7) Sprinkle the logs heavily with coarse white sugar, if desired. (I egg-washed the logs first using one egg and a couple of teaspoons of water.)
8) Bake the logs for about 28 to 30 minutes, until they're set and beginning to brown and the edges and sides, but not brown all over. Remove them from the oven, and reduce the oven temperature to 300°F.
9) Spritz the logs lightly with water; this will make them easier to cut. Allow them to cool for 10 minutes.
10) Cut each log into 1/2" to 3/4" slices. Cutting them on the diagonal will make the mandelbrot longer; cutting them crosswise will yield shorter cookies.
11) Place the pieces on edge, quite close together, on the baking sheets, and return them to the oven.
12) Bake for an additional 35 to 45 minutes, until a cookie feels baked through when you pinch it between your fingers. You'll also notice some browning around the edges, though the cookie shouldn't be browning all over. The point is simply to bake them all the way through.
13) Remove from the oven, and cool the walnussbrot right on the baking sheets.

Then I finally managed to deliver the last tins of maple cinnamon rolls to my beloved next-door neighbor and the dairy farmer who lets me garden and keep my chickens on his land. But let me tell you what an ordeal that was! We've had a good bit of snow over the past few days, and the path up to the barn had not been plowed. I was going to drive up there, but I was afraid I'd get stuck. So I decided, in a foolish moment of holiday magnanimity, to walk up to the barn and then over to neighbor Ken's place. And actually, I did pretty well...at first. The snow was up to my calves in places, but I tried to walk carefully in the big tracks of the milk tankers. I managed to deliver a pan of rolls to the barn and dropped the other off on Ken's porch before heading back to my house, surprisingly without incident. I was almost home-free, but coming around the corner of the house, I hit a thick patch of ice underneath the accumulation of soft snow, and before I realized it, I went SPLAT on the ground! Nothing was really hurt except my pride, particularly when I discovered that I couldn't get enough traction on the ice to get back on my feet. So I lay there, helpless, floundering in a snowdrift alongside Route 22, thinking that I'd just have to wait for some Good Samaritan motorist or neighbor to stop and help me up. My second thought was I would die of embarrassment t'were that to happen, so I quickly concocted a cover story wherein I was making snow angels right next to a major thoroughfare, like you do. This horrifying possibility somehow gave me the will to crawl on my knees off of the ice floe, then I could stand and finally flee into the house before I caused more of a scene. I was wet and cold, and my right knee and left wrist hurt, but otherwise, I wasn't much worse for wear. Nevertheless, shouldn't suffering that indignity to deliver homemade gifts be enough to warrant Santa Claus bringing me Rock Band for Christmas? I sure think so! Nick, are ya getting this?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rematerializing to Riff on the Pioneer Woman

You may have inferred from my prolonged absence that either I had (prematurely) gone on to my reward...or I was languishing in the throes of finals. My reappearance confirms two things: I ain't dead and SCHOOL IS OUT! YIPPPEEEEEE!! Ok, so I have only finished five out of seven of my classes' final grades, and I'll have to return to work one afternoon next week. Still, the hard part is done. And that was a ROUGH semester, let me tell you, but it really flew by! It seems like I was just picking tomatoes out of my garden, and then--POW--it all screeched to a halt. And as is my way at the end of the semester, I have been comatose most of the weekend, trying to recuperate. I can't seem to stay awake for more than four hours at a time! Case in point, I woke up at 5:30 this morning, sitting straight up in my big chair, hands still on the keyboard of my laptop (forgive me if I sent anyone an indecipherable email last night or stopped instant messaging mid-conversation!).

Not only did I have finals to contend with last week, I also wanted to make some holiday treats for my divisional co-workers. Fortunately, I had just one final on Thursday morning, so I was done by 1pm and headed home early to start the insane baking frenzy! I first saw the recipe for the Pioneer Woman's cinnamon rolls in the summer of aught-seven, and I immediately made seven pans of those decadent suckers. (Actually, I was trying to make half the recipe, but I forgot to halve the flour! So I ended up making the full recipe and sold the extras at the farmer's market. Problem solved.) They were good, but I had a few problems making them, so I never did blog about it. I wanted a chance to improve on my first efforts, and Christmas seemed like the ideal excuse.

This time, I think I've got it! In fact, my friend Vicky said that she tried to show restraint by eating just a half of one roll, but she had gobbled down the whole thing before she could stop herself, asking me if I had put crack in them?! I told her no, just lots and lots of butter. Tee hee. I love that this recipe is a no-knead affair which yields a very soft, tender roll. Maybe it's the vegetable oil in the dough (instead of butter or shortening) or maybe it's the addition of baking powder and baking soda? Who knows?! All I know is the resulting roll is light as a feather...until you drown it in butter and sugar, that is!

Now the Pioneer Woman is a delightful person, but she may be trying to kill us. I have never been one to shy away from butter, but she might be crazy, instructing us to pour up to FOUR CUPS (two pounds!) of butter onto the dough. That's just ridiculous, and because she also has you using melted butter, it's inevitable that most of that butter is going to run out of the dough and end up all over your counter and floor. Plus, the butter that's left in the rolls bakes out and fills the pan, so that your rolls sort of fry rather than bake. Moreover, it tends to overflow the pan, and then you have butter burning on the bottom of your oven and smoking you out of the kitchen! Thus, I have cut the total amount of butter used by almost half (which is still PLENTY!), and I advise that you soften it until it's almost melted, but not all the way to liquid and translucent. (If you go too far, pop it into the fridge or out onto the cold porch like we do in my neck of the woods, until it solidifies a little.) Then use a pastry brush to brush on the very soft butter. This works much better and makes the rolling-up process much more humane. And a pound of butter still makes for a scrumptiously sinful cinnamon roll! Trust me on this point.

Secondly, I advocate using brown sugar for at least half of the sugar in the filling to give it a gooier texture and more of a caramel flavor. Also, I don't think I prefer as much cinnamon in my rolls as Ree does, though she doesn't specify how much she uses. I like a generous tablespoon inside each half of the dough, but most people may prefer two tablespoons or so (to taste). Next, I don't prefer to measure my rolls individually as I cut them and then potentially end up with an uneven amount and inconsistent size of rolls. I just divide each roll (that's half of one batch) into thirds using a ruler to help make it equal, then cut each third into half (eyeballing it), then each of those halves into thirds (also eyeballing), for a total of 18 big rolls. That works best for me. I also bake them at a slightly lower temperature for a little bit longer to aid them in their rise, as my house is so cold in the winter!

The only thing that could make these rolls any better or more decadent would be the addition of some nuts in the filling. Some people don't like nuts or are allergic, so when I make these for gifts, I leave the nuts out. But for myself and other nut lovers, I like to add about a cup of very finely chopped pecans (walnuts would be good, too) sprinkled over the cinnamon sugar. I usually like big pieces of nuts in my baked goods, but you want these almost pulverized, or your rolls will be very hard to cut and roll, and the nut pieces will also pierce the tender dough as you roll. Then again, you needn't be too worried about the rolls looking just so before baking, because they will puff up and hide any imperfections, and the maple frosting also covers a multitude of sins.

Speaking of the frosting, I made another couple of minor changes. First of all, a two-pound bag of sugar makes a frosting that's AWFULLY sweet! I prefer about a pound and a half per batch of frosting. And in addition to the maple extract, I like to throw in a little touch of real maple syrup, too, because living in maple country, I always have some on hand. One last note, for those of you afraid of the coffee in the frosting, DON'T BE! It doesn't really make the frosting taste like coffee. It just adds a layer of flavor that sort of punches up the maple-y goodness. You can always omit the coffee and add more milk, but I don't advise it. Also, if you don't have or don't prefer the maple flavor, use two teaspoons of vanilla instead. But again, you'd be making a mistake. The maple frosting is the way to go!

However you choose to make them, MAKE THEM! These things are TO. DIE. FOR. Slap-yo-mama good. Throw your head back and groan at the first bite good. Sure, they take some time and effort, but most of the best things in life do. This would be a terrific family tradition to make for your family on Christmas morning (or for Hannukah or Kwanzaa or Festivus). And it would be an even nicer tradition to make these as gifts for your friends, neighbors, or co-workers as I did this year. And it's only Dec. 14th...you still have plenty of time! So get to rolling! Here's my take on the recipe:

Maple Cinnamon Rolls
(Source: adapted from
The Pioneer Woman Cooks!)
Yield: six pans of six large rolls

1 quart (4 cups) whole milk
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
4 1/2 teaspoons (2 packages) active dry yeast (I used instant)
9 cups flour, divided
1 heaping teaspoon baking powder
1 scant teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon salt

2 cups (one pound) butter, almost melted but still opaque
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
generous sprinkling of cinnamon (1/8 to 1/4 cup)
2 cups pecans, very finely chopped, optional

1 1/2 pounds powdered sugar (3/4 of a bag)
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup brewed coffee
1/4 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon maple extract (if using maple syrup, if not, use 2 teaspoons maple extract)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon Grade B maple syrup, optional
1/8 teaspoon salt

Mix whole milk, vegetable oil and sugar in a large pot and scald bring just to the boiling pint). Let cool until lukewarm (100 degrees or less--this will take 45 minutes to an hour). Sprinkle in yeast and let sit for a minute or two to get frothy (if you use instant yeast, you can skip the wait). Add eight cups flour and stir mixture together. Cover and let sit for about one hour in a warm, draft-free place.

Punch down and add another cup of flour, along with the baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Stir mixture together. (At this point, the dough can be refrigerated overnight or even for a few days--just keep punching it down if it gets unwieldy.)

Divide dough in half (cover and reserve the other half of the dough), then sprinkle a long, flat surface generously with flour and form the first half of the dough into a rectangle with your fingertips. Then with a rolling pin, roll the dough out thinly, maintaining a rectangular shape (on my butcher block kitchen island, mine ends up to be about 24 inches long and about 18 inches wide). Using a pastry brush, brush one cup of the very soft butter all over the dough. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup each granulated and brown sugar, 1 to 2 tablespoons cinnamon, and one cup crushed pecans, if using. Roll up the dough, jelly-roll style, as tightly as you can. Pinch the seam to seal it. Spray three foil cake or pie pans with nonstick cooking spray. Cut each log into thirds, and then each third into six equal pieces, for a total of 18 rolls. Place five rolls around the outside of each greased pan and one in the middle. Cover the rolls and let sit for about 30 minutes. Bake at 375 for 20-22 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Repeat with the second half of dough.

Combine all frosting ingredients in a bowl and whisk thoroughly. Generously drizzle frosting over warm rolls after they come out of the oven. Make sure to put some around the perimeter of the pan so that the outside edges of the rolls get coated.

Cook's Note: These rolls can be frozen before baking, then thawed, baked and frosted. Or they can be frozen after baking, even with the frosting on them! They defrost beautifully and taste freshly-baked. So while you're going to the trouble of making them, you might as well make a bunch!

After grading mountains of papers and speeches, and baking THREE batches of homemade cinnamon rolls (that's 18 pans' worth or 108 cinnamon rolls in total), you might understand why I've been down for the count this weekend. But I did manage to find the energy to rouse myself from slumbering in the big chair long enough to prepare yet another Pioneer Woman recipe last night, Pasta alla Vodka. In a word, DELECTABLE! In another word, easy-peasy. And like everything else Ree makes, shamefully rich. On the plus side, though you might choose to add some grilled chicken breasts or shrimp or spicy Italian sausage to this dish, you needn't. It's plenty hearty and filling and satisfying without any meat involved--even your most devout carnivore might agree. This recipe is a keeper, especially during this busy holiday season. It's special enough to honor the magic of the season, but it's quick and easy enough so that you can get back to wrapping presents, trimming the tree, delivering all those faint-worthy cinnamon rolls, or napping in your own big chair!

Ok, some notes before the recipe. First, I had a half a large red onion sitting on the counter, waiting to be used. So I decided to chop up a few shallots that I also had on hand to make the equivalent of a whole onion and to add another layer of flavor. I also upped the garlic amount to about six cloves, as is my way. I also did not have tomato puree in my pantry, so I drained a jar of whole tomatoes that I put up this fall, and whizzed them up in the blender with a small can of tomato paste, which worked perfectly. But when the sauce was done, it seemed to want for something herb-y, and if I had had any fresh basil, I would have used that. But I opted for a scant teaspoon of dried thyme instead which did the trick. Finally, though I used my favorite pasta, pappardelle, it had the tendency to break apart as I stirred it together with the thick sauce. So I would definitely recommend a sturdier pasta (penne, rigatoni, farfalle, etc.), and make sure to just cook it to al dente. Lastly, don't worry about getting drunk on this pasta or feeding it to kids. Much of the alcohol burns off anyway, and the whole purpose of using the vodka is to "unlock" some flavor components in the tomatoes that are only alcohol-soluble. If you are a tee-totaller and opposed to cooking with alcohol, then go make yourself spaghetti instead. Sheesh! Ok, here's the recipe. Enjoy!

Pasta alla Vodka
The Pioneer Woman Cooks!)

1 medium onion, chopped finely (or a mix of onion and shallots)
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, chopped (or 4-6 for the garlic lovers!)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
3/4 to 1 cup vodka (I used the lesser amount)
1 (8 oz.) can tomato puree
1 cup heavy cream
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme, optional (or herb of your choice)
1 pound pasta
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions, being careful not to overcook.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add olive oil and butter. When butter is melted, add in chopped onions and garlic. Stir and allow to cook for two minutes. Remove pan from the burner and pour in the vodka. Stir and cook for three minutes. Add in tomato puree and stir.
Reduce heat to low and stir in cream. Allow to simmer, but do not boil once the cream has been added. Stir in red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, and herbs if using.

Drain the pasta, reserving one cup of pasta water in case sauce is too thick. Add cooked pasta to the sauce, tossing to combine. Splash in a little pasta water if it needs it. Stir in the parmesan cheese. Pour mixture into large serving bowl. In the holiday spirit, try to share your pasta with others. ;-)