Sunday, January 10, 2016

Christmas 2015

I'm going to go on record here and say that Christmas 2015 is not going to make my lifetime Top 10 list of Christmases. What with the sinus infection beforehand, DP leaving on the 27th for a 10-day work trip that got rescheduled at the last minute, and the emergency dental work, it wasn't quite the relaxing family interlude I had been planning on all year. I rounded off the holiday week with having the one book I found in the library confiscated at the desk because someone else had reserved it, and ruining a batch of strawberry jam. So there was some fairly epic self-pity going least until I had a conversation at the end of it that reminded me forcefully of how truly fortunate I am. And that there was some good stuff mixed in there too:

As usual, I made up goody bags for friends, neighbors, teachers, and DP's team. These ones include strawberry jam and chocolava cookies - Miss B requests these first every year when Christmas baking starts.

I finally broke out my mini-loaf pan to make some cranberry bread (like this but without the walnuts and with a dollop of maple syrup in place of some of the brown sugar).

Sugar cookies - for ease of preparation I made the dough in the food processor, formed into logs, rolled in colored sugar, and chilled overnight. Slice and bake in the morning and then all you have to do is assemble the bags. (As a side note, I finally found some cellophane goodie bags and I felt like they changed everything in terms of providing simple but elegant packaging. Highly recommended.)

Calabrian Christmas doughnuts - make the dough the night of the 23rd (a basic yeast dough, almost 1:1 flour and water with a teaspoon of yeast and a half-teaspoon of salt for every pound/half kilo); on the morning of Christmas Eve, fry in olive oil (the tradition is to try to make rings, but I usually just give up and fry blobs) and serve up hot with honey. I gave DP a box of these hot out of the frying pan to share with his Calabrian barbers - always nice to spread Christmas cheer to people you know will appreciate it!

Only the second year and it's already a tradition - the bûche de Noël. I didn't love the way the cake came out this year (I was rushing and I think I used the wrong recipe) but no one else seemed to care. Extremely decadent but in my opinion not as difficult as it looks - you can cover up your mistakes with chocolate buttercream icing or powdered sugar and it just looks more rustic and festive.

I didn't make this, but I have to share it because I thought it was so flawlessly beautiful and minimalist. It's a traditional Christmas fruitcake, made by one of DP's admin team. Since none of us are big Christmas cake fans (and neither were our two Christmas lunch guests), I left it pristine and brought it to my friend L's Boxing Day lunch to share, where it was devoured and raved over by a crowd - the proper fate for a lovingly made Christmas cake, I feel.

My lovely sisters always send care packages of goodies from the US - here's this year's haul from one of them. Note the Moscow mule mugs - specially designed just for my new favorite cocktail.

And of course, it wouldn't be Christmas without cookbooks - although when this arrived, I did wonder if it was some kind of cosmic sign that it was time to stop (despite the fact that I picked it out). Either that or living in the Midwest made more of an impression than I realized.

And that pretty much wraps up 2015 and kicks off 2016 - planning for which is under way, fuelled by coffee. Hope it is good to us all.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Another round-up

So I've gone AWOL again and come back again....Here's what I've been up to in the interim:

Went overseas for my organization's annual meeting - 10 jam-packed days in Vienna...

...mostly work, but friend M and I managed to sneak out to a cafe one afternoon and sample two famous Viennese specialities - Sacher torte and apple strudel.

We finished off the conference with a gala dinner in the spectacular Vienna Rathaus...

...and then the next day it was off to Amsterdam to another conference, this one the annual meeting of one of our partners. I had about 3 days there, and one free afternoon which featured a visit to the Van Gogh Museum, a World Cup rugby match in an Irish pub, and a wander through the streets and canals in between.

Then it was off again, for a flying visit to Boston en route to spend a week in western Mass. with my sister-in-law R and brand-new niece Miss D. I fuelled up for my drive with an Australian-style coffee from the cafe in my old neighborhood.

I was gone for nearly 3 weeks - by far my longest solo trip since Miss B arrived more than a decade ago. I got back to Canberra with spring well underway in late October, and snapped this to send back to R and lighten her sleep deprivation with a laugh.

Ten days after I got home, it was DP's turn for a road trip and my turn to keep the house running. Crumpets are a tradition now when DP goes away, and this was the best batch yet - not least because for the first time I made the dough the night before, cutting down on the yeast and stashing it in the fridge to rise slowly over night. In the morning there was no waiting, and the extra time for the dough to develop improved the flavor.

More signs of spring - some talented gardeners in our new neighborhood!

DP came back in late November, and I was off again - but this time just a 2-day hop down the road to Melbourne for our regional symposium. I managed to fit in a morning run around Carlton Gardens and captured some typically changeable Melbourne weather...

...and then it was back home to plunge into prep for Thanksgiving! We pushed our celebration back to Saturday this year to accommodate my trip, so I took Friday off to get my planning and prep organized.

And get my contributions to the desserts sorted: 3 apple pies, one small raspberry pie for Miss B, and this year's experimental pie - smitten kitchen's nutmeg-maple cream (a hit!).

As usual, I didn't manage to take any good pictures during the event itself - we had 35 people for dinner, including the 3 of us, and by all accounts a good time and a major feast was had by all, including yours truly. And I thoroughly enjoyed the post-celebration rituals as well - sleeping in, pie for breakfast, and lounging on the deck enjoying the flowers and swapping stories from the night before.

Aside from Thanksgiving, I've managed to do some regular cooking as well:

This pork larb that I mentioned about a year ago is back in heavy rotation. I don't know if you can read my scribbles, but that's basically the entire recipe - heat some oil and saute some garlic and chili, then tip in about 450g/1lb pork mince and cook. While that's cooking, mix together a sauce of soy, fish sauce, and brown sugar (I use 1 part fish sauce and brown sugar to 2 parts soy). When pork is just about cooked, chuck in a few big handfuls of spinach to wilt in the heat, then mix in the sauce. Serve over rice with a squeeze of lime juice and some chopped spring onion and herbs. (I get the rice going first and the rest of it comes together by the time the rice is cooked.)

Strawberry season is in full swing, and I've been alternating between making strawberry jam and roasted strawberry compote, shown here - basically tossing strawberries with sugar and a splash of balsamic in a baking dish, then putting into a 180C/350F oven for 45-60 minutes. I stir into yogurt, pour over pancakes, and occasionally eat straight out of the jar.

I also tried an experiment with making Russian tea cakes as a slice-and-bake cookie - delicious, but no structural integrity. They basically fell apart as soon as you picked them up. So I'll be sticking with the original shape for upcoming Christmas baking.

And finally, I'm experimenting with cold-brewed coffee - perfect for summer iced coffees and might save a bit of money too on my daily coffee shop habit!

Phew! That's all the news for now from here; hope all is well where you are too?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Recipe tweaking

Nothing really major has happened this month - which in itself is kind of major, because it seems like such a long time since that has been the case. We had our first dinner guests in the new house last weekend, which was the first real cooking I'd done in the new kitchen - marinated goat cheese and pita chips to start, followed by braised short ribs of beef, gratin dauphinois (with a layer of blue cheese and caramelized onion in the middle), and Swiss chard for the main course (plus bread), and finishing up with brownies topped with vanilla ice cream and salted caramel sauce.

This generated quite a lot of leftovers; I used the leftover short ribs as the basis for a thick bolognese-type tomato sauce, and we had that on Tuesday night with gnocchi and shredded kale. On Thursday, I tossed the leftover gratin and chard into the slow cooker along with some leftover short-rib sauce and stock, and blended them into a thick soup for dinner. I wanted a little something to top it, so I rooted around in the fridge, pulled out some odds and ends, and made pangrattato with a twist:

Pangrattato, in case you don't already know, means "grated bread", and it's an Italian invention - basically fried bread crumbs, most often used to top pasta. For this version, I threw a leftover (cooked) Italian sausage into the food processor along with the bread; then toward the end of cooking in the frying pan, I threw over a handful of grated pecorino romano cheese. Both tweaks highly recommended.

On the sweet side of things, I've finally found most of my baking equipment, not least of which is the abovementioned food processor. Miss B has fallen in love with jam drops this year, and asked if we could make a batch not long after we moved in. I had to improvise to put a batch of dough together, including using a pastry cutter to blend the butter and sugar. This made for a very warm batch of dough which, when shaped, filled, and put into the oven to bake, spread like crazy. The cookies were delicious, but not neat or easy to eat out of hand.

She asked for another batch to take to a school party last week, and this time I thought I would do things a bit differently: I made the dough in the food processor, then rolled into a cylinder and chilled in the fridge overnight. The morning of the party, I scooped mounds of dough off the cylinder with my cookie scoop and arranged them on a baking tray. I made a thumbprint in each mound and filled with jam; then I chilled them again for 30 minutes or so. Then I baked them and voila!

Not quite magazine-ready, but definitely an improvement over the first batch. I'll be carrying on with the chilling from now on. I used this recipe, which as you'll note doesn't suggest any of that - odd when you consider how perfect the ones in their picture look!

That's all the exciting news from here - more to follow shortly, I hope!

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