Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Failing Christmas

The RL Christmas tree--a gift from SP
On Friday night, worn out from a week of frantic prep (hampered by houseguests and leftover exhaustion from finishing my job) and nowhere near ready for the big day, I told a friend over dinner that I had failed Christmas this year. As of December 23, I had just mailed my first batch of cards; not yet started to decorate my tree (or finished decorating my house); completed less than half of the baking I had planned to do; and not even tackled the enormous pile of mail-order boxes in my front hall, let alone wrapped anything.

And not only failing as a human being and all-around domestic goddess, but also as a blogger: over the course of the past week I managed to prepare/consume/share/give away the following without ever taking a picture:

- an entire batch of pizzelles (I know I promised a post about these; it will be slightly delayed)

- ditto cardamom snowballs (adapted from a recipe in this month’s Bon Appetit)

- a bacon-cheddar-peppadew cheese ball (adapted from Homesick Texan via Dinner with Julie)

- Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners in their entirety

- carefully assembled dessert trays for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day dinners

And yet, last night, as DP and I sat flopped on the couch together, watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (me with one of my new cookbooks on my lap), I said to DP, “You know, in spite of all my angsting about what a crappy job I was doing at managing things this year, it turned out to be a really nice Christmas.”

“Yes, it was,” he agreed in his usual no-nonsense fashion. “So why don’t you write that down and remember it, so maybe you won’t be so hard on yourself next year.”

Done. And after that, all that’s left to do is to wish you all a peaceful and relaxing holiday season.


Welcome, Christmas, bring your cheer.
Cheer to all Whos far and near.

Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp.
Christmas Day will always be just as long as we have we.

- Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas break

I'm on vacation! Well, sort of. Thanks to my project handoff on Friday, I didn't have to work this weekend for the first time since I don't know when. I did do a bit of work this morning, which was really kind of nice because a) I didn't do anything very strenuous but yet b) felt like I had gotten quite a bit accomplished. Amazing how your perspective changes when your workload seems as though it might actually be manageable on your work schedule.

After a productive morning, I got to go out to lunch, and afterwards I got to come home and spend the afternoon on my first crack at the Eight Days of Christmas Baking (which will probably be more like Six Days this year). I finally made my mincemeat for mince pies (yes, despite my best-laid plans from last year, I left it until the last minute again); mixed up a batch of almond joy bark in the slow cooker; and even got out my pizzelle iron to cook up part of a batch of dough I had sitting in the fridge. (More on that tomorrow.) And with all that, I still had dinner on the table earlier than usual.

I could get used to this really quick.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Last day

Today was my last day on a project that I have been involved in, one way and another, since I started working for the organization that pays my wages more than 12 years ago. The first couple of years, I wondered to myself why it didn’t exist. The next couple of years, I asked like-minded people in the organization that I had gotten to know why we couldn’t bring it into existence. Since I am fortunate enough to work for an organization where you can identify a gap and then figure out how to fill it, some of us started working on a plan. And when enough of us agreed to pitch in and see if we could make it happen, I volunteered to be the administrator while we tried to get it off the ground, fitting it in around the full-time job I was already doing.

About a year later, we had established its presence, and enough people thought it was worthwhile that a paid Associate Editor’s position was created to administer it. I handed off the administrative side of it with some relief, but continued to do some work on the project. I had just gone freelance, and the few hours a week it entailed fit in nicely with my other commitments.

Two years later, the Associate Editor went on maternity leave. Since she was based in the UK, that meant six months off work. As probably the next-most-experienced person in the organization about the project, I was asked if I might have the time and interest to take on that part of her job for that period. We estimated it to be two days a week of work, and I accepted. It was a tighter squeeze than before among my commitments, but still manageable, and the steady income would come in very handy.

I started in June of 2006. After six months, that first Associate Editor came back from maternity leave, worked a year or more, and then took another maternity leave from which she didn’t return. Three other Associate Editors have succeeded her. Meanwhile, at home, we organized a move from England to Australia (with an unplanned eight-month layover in the US) and one from Australia to the American Midwest. The project itself has grown from working with a fraction of our organization’s authors and editors to handling well over 60% of our published output. Miss B has gone from being not quite two to halfway through first grade. DP is on his third job and has published two books.

All the while, I have continued with a two-day-a-week commitment on what may be the longest maternity cover in the history of employment.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Flavor memories

Blueberry bread was one of my favorite cakes of childhood. My Aunt Ann was the first to discover this recipe, but had shared it with my mother long before I came along. My mother would make it in the summer with my Uncle Jimmy’s fresh blueberries; in good years, she would freeze the overflow in bags and make this in the depths of winter. The blueberries scattered through the cake tasted like a burst of August, even on the most frigid February Sunday.


Blueberry bread

aka Aunt Ann’s Prize Coffee Cake
We always referred to this as 'cake', and it wasn't until I baked this to bring as a hostess gift that I heard it referred to as ‘bread’. My hosts toasted and buttered it for breakfast—another revelation to me. To this day, whenever anyone refers to ‘quick bread’, this is what I think of first. The recipe below is exactly as transcribed into my recipe notebook from one of my mother’s index cards more years ago than I can remember.

1. Mix:
- ¾ cup sugar
- ¼ cup shortening*
- 1 egg

2. Stir in:
- ½ cup milk**

3. Sift and stir in:
- 1½ cups flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp salt

If adding blueberries:
- ½ cup flour extra
- 2 cups blueberries
- juice & zest of 1 lime

(If adding cranberries:
- 1-1½ cups cranberries
- ½-1 cup orange juice)

Top with cinnamon sugar. Bake in a greased and floured loaf pan at 375F for 20-35 minutes.

Makes 1 loaf.

* Nowadays I substitute the same amount of unsalted butter.
** Sometimes I replace half the milk with plain yogurt; this makes for a denser, moister cake.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Seasonal flavors

I missed posting last night for the first time in 40 days. D’oh! I’m blaming it on the head cold that arrived a couple of days ago. Or the whirlwind road trip to Wichita (a mere 3-hour drive each way) for a family party with my in-laws. Or tacking the Vintage Homes Tour (where all that bread was for sale) on to the end of it.

Seeing the bread (or what was left of it by the time we got there = not much) reminded me that I hadn’t posted all the recipes yet. And that I’d mentioned on the labels that people could find them here. So I thought I’d better buckle down and get to it.

Cranberry walnut bread
This used some of the huge amount of cranberry sauce I had left over from Thanksgiving. Adding in a scattering of toasted walnuts makes for an excellent combination of late autumn/early winter flavors.

8 oz/240 g all-purpose/plain flour
2 oz/60 g granulated/caster sugar
2 oz/60 g brown sugar
1 tsp/5 g kosher salt
2 tsp/10 g baking powder
8 oz/240 ml whole milk
2 large eggs
4oz/120 g/1 stick unsalted butter, melted and browned
½ cup cranberry sauce
½ cup walnuts, chopped and toasted

Preheat oven to 350F/180C and grease a 9 in/23 cm loaf pan.

Measure dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir or whisk to combine. Measure wet ingredients in a large measuring cup, jug, or similar, and whisk thoroughly until eggs are beaten in completely and liquid is of a uniform consistency.

Pour wet ingredients into dry, and mix until nearly combined. Add walnuts and fold through batter until evenly distributed. Scatter lumps of cranberry sauce on top of batter, and use a knife to swirl through.

Scrape the batter into loaf pan and bake for 45-50 minutes or until browned on top and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool for at least 20 minutes in pan before turning out onto a rack to cool completely.

Makes 1 loaf.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Saturday shuffle



http://youtu.be/4PkcfQtibmU

Okay, not the most seasonal selection, but appropriate, as it's on heavy repeat on my iPod at the moment. I'm using the Foo Fighters to power me through the final stages of wrapping up and handing over the work project I mentioned resigning from a few weeks ago. They are just what I need right now: kick-ass rock & roll with a positive vibe: gets the adrenaline and the endorphins pumping. Try it and see!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cookie swap

I got invited to this cookie swap on Sunday, after I had already devised my bread-baking schedule for the week in order to meet our agreed Vintage Homes Society contribution. As I mentioned yesterday, I try to avoid scheduling multiple baking projects for the same day, because usually it doesn't end well. But obviously I was feeling invincible (I blame the sangria) when I said, "Sure, I'd love to come!" and thought, "I can slot a batch of cookies in there, nooooo problem."

::cue foreshadowing music of doom::

I was already planning on making these brown butter & sugar shortbread cookies, because the recipe is really simple, and the dough comes together in about 45 seconds, thanks to Archie. The only time-consuming part of it would be browning the butter, and I could do that ahead of time. Even tripling the recipe should be no problem, right? It's a 1-2-3 recipe, so just multiply everything by 3 and I'm good to go.

Yes. Except for the part where I forgot to double-check the master recipe and then mentally swapped around the proportions of butter and sugar. Which provided me with an unusably crumbly dough (since it had so little butter), until I poured in some milk to bring it all together.

The good news is, like most recipe screw-ups, they were still edible. (More than edible, actually: crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, and festive with their red and green sugar on top. And they seem to have been well received, since I retrieved my box at the end of the night with about five cookies left in it.) They just were definitely not shortbread, that's all. Which would have been fine too, if not for the fact that I had already printed out the requested 15 copies of a recipe with "shortbread" in the title and had no time to it again.

Oh well. Let's hope no one remembers that discrepancy if and when they ever get around to cooking from those directions.

Brown butter & sugar Christmas cookies
Another 1-2-3 recipe, mauled nearly beyond recognition. Also a happy accident that I may just have to make again.

6 oz/180 g browned butter
12 oz/360 g brown sugar
pinch salt
2 tsp/10 g vanilla
18 oz/540 g all-purpose/plain flour
2-3 Tbsp/45 g milk
red & green sugar, for topping

Preheat oven to 350F/180C and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Mix the first four ingredients in a food processor (or mixing method of your choice) until thoroughly combined, then add the flour in slowly. You will probably have a sandy, very crumbly dough; add milk with the food processor running until the dough comes together in a large ball.

You can bake this immediately, or shape into a log to slice and bake later. When ready to go in the oven, sprinkle with sugar and bake for 15-20 minutes, rotating tray(s) halfway through cooking time. When lightly brown around the edges, remove from oven and let cool on trays for 2-3 minutes before removing cookies to a rack to cool thoroughly.

Makes 36-40 cookies.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Baking frenzy

Today I finished up the last of my allotment of the breads (with a batch of cranberry walnut bread) for the Vintage Homes Society, and also knocked out 3 dozen cookies for attendance at my first-ever cookie swap, from which I have just returned. As much as I like to bake, I rarely ever try to make more than one thing on the same day, because it fuddles my brain, and today was no exception. I think I managed to screw up both recipes, although luckily the outcomes were still presentable--just not what I had expected. (I don't think it helped that both were my own concoctions.)

Given that, I am not going to invite further screw-ups and attempt to transcribe any recipes tonight. I'll be back tomorrow with more harrowing details and, more importantly, some recipe specifics. In the meantime I'll leave you with another cookie swap shot (as usual, after the cookie carnage had begun):

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Savory bread

When I perused the breads that the Vintage Homes Society had for sale last year, all I saw were sweet breads—pumpkin and zucchini and so on. When I signed on to contribute, I asked if savory breads were welcome. This is what I had in mind.

Bacon blue cheese bread
Adapted slightly from David Lebovitz’ The Sweet Life in Paris
Savory quick breads are known as le cake in France and David Lebovitz mentions coming across them being served as a trendy hors d’oeuvre. I don’t know if this is still trendy in Paris, but anything with bacon and blue cheese is a perennial favorite with me. Apparently I’m not the only one; when the sale organizers saw this, they requested that we double our suggested contribution. And I've already had two requests for the recipe—hence its jumping the queue from yesterday.

8 strips/5 oz/150 g bacon
2 scallions
5 oz/140 g blue cheese
bacon fat for greasing the pan
1.5 cup/6 oz/210 g all-purpose/plain flour
2 tsp/10 g baking powder
.5 tsp/3 g cayenne pepper
.5 tsp/3 g kosher salt
4 large eggs
.25 cup/2 oz/60 ml olive oil
.5 cup/4 oz/120 g plain whole-milk yogurt
1.5 tsp/7 g Dijon mustard
2 oz/60 g grated parmesan

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Lay the bacon on baking sheets and place in the oven to cook until crisp, turning once, about 15 minutes. Allow to cool, then chop coarsely or crumble. Set aside.

While the bacon is cooking, chop the scallions finely and crumble the blue cheese. Set aside.

Use the rendered bacon fat to grease a 9-in/23-cm loaf pan.

In a large bowl, measure the flour, baking powder, cayenne, and kosher salt and mix thoroughly. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, crack the eggs, then add the oil, yogurt, and mustard. Mix with a whisk until smooth.

Pour the wet mixture into the dry mixture, then use a rubber spatula to mix until nearly, but not quite, combined. Add the scallions, blue and parmesan cheeses, and bacon, and fold gently into the batter until evenly distributed throughout.

Scoop batter into prepared pan and smooth into corners. Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean (try to find a spot with no cheese bits in it!).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Holiday breads

SP and I signed up to bake a slew of breads for her Vintage Homes Society's annual fundraiser, so it's a week of baking madness around Casa RL. Here's what's in the lineup:
Recipes to follow shortly; right now it's back to wrestling with getting my printer to make legible labels.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Graphic design

Otherwise known as a rather grand term for me, scribbling with a pen, trying to come up with a logo/avatar for my blogging/catering alter ego. What do you think? I'm thinking I'd love to see what someone who could actually draw could do with it....

Monday, December 5, 2011

Holiday cheer

Today was our end-of-year party for DP's seminar group. As usual, I didn't manage to get pictures of the lunch buffet before it looked as though a pack of starving wolverines has passed through:

but at least I got a few nice shots of the untouched dessert buffet before everyone got their second wind:

As usual, it was a potluck, and as usual, we had waaaay too much food. But I think everyone went home full and happy--many of them with doggy bags. Just the thing to kick off the festive season.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Holiday perfectionism

Last night I went with a group of friends to our town’s annual Candlelight Homes Tour, wherein you hand over a chunk of cash in exchange for license to snoop through other people’s festively decorated magazine-layout homes. Today I started the process of decorating our own house for Christmas—possibly not the best conjunction of events for a would-be perfectionist.

I say would-be because I don’t think I actually am a perfectionist: when push comes to shove, I’m too slapdash and impatient to be as painstaking as true perfectionism requires. Whether it’s an ingrained characteristic or a logical outgrowth of permanently having too much to do, I don’t know. I just know that I constantly tell myself, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”—and then periodically, when would-be perfectionism gets the better of me, berate myself for the good not being good enough.

This time of year is particularly bad for that, I find. As I mentioned earlier in the week, nearly everyone else on my street had their houses fully decorated by the end of Thanksgiving weekend; I, on the other hand, finally managed to remove the pumpkins from the front steps 3 days ago. Which shouldn’t really be a big deal, you know? It was still November, after all. The problem is that I care. I like the way other people’s lavishly decorated houses look. I’m even secretly thrilled by those completely tacky, over-the-top houses where the whole front yard is full of lit-up stuff, but I swoon for the really elegant presentation. I even think I could achieve it, if I was willing to spend enough time and money. But when it gets down to it, I’m usually not in a position to do either in the quantities that seem necessary.

So sometimes the gap between the two—what I’d like to do for the holidays and what I actually feel able to do—makes me a little cranky. And that’s really missing the point of what it’s all supposed to be about. Lucky for me, I have Miss B around to help me regain my perspective. After a fairly frustrating hour or two today spent wrestling with garlands and light strings and decoration-destroying kittens, I sat down for a few minutes to make the one thing she had asked for: a big red bow for her bedroom door. It took me seven minutes, tops, including refashioning a paper clip into a hanger to hook it over the doorknob. But her joy in seeing it there (imperfections and all), bubbling over into asking if we could make them for all the doors, was infectious, and suddenly it didn’t feel like a who’s-got-the-best-looking-house contest anymore. Suddenly it was back to being what it should be: a heartfelt expression of joy, goodwill, and festive spirit.

My goal this year is to keep it that way.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sugar shortage

Somehow I managed to run out of granulated (castor) sugar earlier this week--a potentially anxiety-inducing event at any time, made even worse when I briefly thought I would have to produce a baked good before I could get to the grocery store on Thursday. I was calmed, however, when I remembered that I did have a full bag of brown sugar on hand, and in that state imagined that I had recently come across a recipe for Brown Sugar Shortbread. Minimal Googling revealed this to have been a delusion on my part, and by then the reason for baking had also evaporated, whatever it was. But now I wanted some brown sugar shortbread, so I decided to make up my own. And when I noticed that I had some pre-made browned butter waiting around to be used up, I decided to go over the top while I was at it.

Brown butter & sugar shortbread
This recipe is based on Ratio's 1-2-3 cookie formula, and it is simple and delicious. This could be a candidate for this year's Eight Days of Christmas Baking.

2 oz/60 g brown sugar
4 oz/120 g browned butter
pinch salt
1 tsp/5 g vanilla
6 oz/180 g all-purpose/plain flour
turbinado sugar, for topping

Preheat oven to 350F/180C and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Mix the first four ingredients in a food processor (or mixing method of your choice) until thoroughly combined, then add the flour in slowly. You should have a soft but crumbly dough when finished.

You can bake this immediately, or shape into a log to slice and bake later. When ready to go in the oven, sprinkle with sugar and bake for 15-20 minutes, rotating tray(s) halfway through cooking time. When lightly brown around the edges, remove from oven and let cool on trays for 2-3 minutes before removing cookies to a rack to cool thoroughly.

Makes 10-18 cookies.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Current events



Love this so much that I have to share with you all--especially for those of you in the UK. Enjoy and Happy December!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

November wrap-up

1. I have managed to not take Miss B out to sell Girl Scout cookies door to door every day this week.

2. It took me until today to finish unpacking my suitcase, after arriving home on Saturday.

3. I think my guitar teacher secretly considers me the most butter-fingered student he's ever had.

4. I have yet to buy a single Christmas present, or even make my list.

5. Nearly everyone else on my street has their lights up already. I just got around to taking the shrivelled jack-'o'-lanterns off the front steps. (Don't even get me started on the leaves we haven't raked.)

6. BUT I have put up a blog post every day in November. I have completed #NaBloPoMo! And I've had so much fun doing it that I'm seriously thinking about carrying on. (Watch this space tomorrow to see if that actually happens.)

Woohoo!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Education/training

I was on the phone with SP the other night while she was trying to cook following a recipe, and cursing freely while she did so. I asked her a bunch of questions to find out why she was so frustrated, and ended up explaining why she was doing several of the steps the recipe specified. This (although I think it helped in the end) frustrated her even more. “Why doesn’t the recipe tell me that?” she fumed. “What would happen if I didn’t have someone around that I could ask?”

I think that this question touches upon a basic issue in cooking, which is that recipes don’t actually teach you how to cook. They will tell how you how to construct one particular item (training), but it’s a long process to extract from one recipe (or even a lot of recipes) how the principles of cooking work (education). I speak from experience, since that’s largely how I’ve learned to cook: I started knowing out how to make a couple of things, tried a lot of different recipes, and through trial and error and just cooking, day after day, week after week, started to connect the dots and understand the principles underlying all these seemingly unconnected sets of instructions. It took a long time before I felt like I was getting it. And I was interested in the process, and interested in learning more; I pored over cookbooks, read food blogs by the dozen, started my own eventually, and generally paid close attention to what was happening. I wasn’t fearless, but I wasn’t thoroughly intimidated either. I was also lucky enough to have some foundation to build on, from having grown up in a house where home-cooked food was provided on a daily basis. But what if I hadn’t been? How do people do it?

I think it must be like me trying to do any kind of home repair or maintenance. Neither of my parents is particularly handy, so anything of that sort was either attended to with a lot of cursing and stress, or else a professional was called in. That was the model I grew up with, and I haven’t had the inclination to change it much. I have figured out how to do some minor things by following instructions (ie training), but I’m chagrined to acknowledge sometimes how little I understand about how my house works as a system (ie education). But most of the time (touch wood) that doesn’t affect my daily life in the way that food does. I mean, everyone has to eat, and for most people, that is a three-times-a-day occurrence. Throw a few small children into the mix, and it’s more like five times. How frustrating must it be to be confronted, day after day, with something you don’t feel knowledgeable about, and yet need in order to survive and function? And that’s without even getting into the complicated emotional issues that are always, always tied up with food and eating.

So what’s the point of all this? I don’t know, but I think it ties in to a lot of bigger issues—to do with food, to do with education, to do with how things work generally. What do you think?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Orange soup

In one of countless conversations about food during our Dallas visit, C. described a soup that her French mother used to make, known in her family only as “orange soup” and consisting of three ingredients: leeks, potatoes, and lots of carrots. I don’t remember what we were talking about that raised this memory, but that brief description lodged in my brain and was waiting for me when I cast around yesterday for something simple and hearty to make for dinner.

Orange soup
I think of this as basically a potato-leek soup with carrots added in, which to my mind makes it a more nutritious option—potato-leek soup, as delicious as it is, always seems too, I dunno, beige to be a convincing source of vegetables. This, on the other hand, is bursting with beta carotene and clearly good for you. I don’t know how much resemblance it bears to C.’s mother’s standby, but it was very well received here.

2 Tbsp olive oil
4 medium leeks
8 carrots
4 medium potatoes
4-6 cups water or stock
salt & pepper

Pour the olive oil into a large soup pot and warm over medium-low heat. Scrub, roughly chop, and add the vegetables in the order specified. Sauté briefly in the olive oil, then add water or stock to cover. Bring just to a boil and then simmer until all the vegetables are soft, 45-60 minutes.

Remove pot from heat and purée soup using an immersion blender; return to heat and season to taste with salt & pepper. Serve with good bread and lots of cheese for a lunch or light dinner.

Makes about 2 quarts of soup.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Roving turkey

Among the souvenirs that I brought back from our Thanksgiving trip to Dallas was the turkey carcass. Do you think this is insane? DP certainly did, and threatened more than once to hurl it out in the window into the Oklahoma countryside if he caught the merest whiff of anything off. Our hostess, C., and I, however, thought it was a perfectly sensible idea. On Friday evening we stripped the carcass, double-wrapped it in a (clean) garbage bag, and stuck it in the freezer. On Saturday morning, moments before our departure, we retrieved it, stiff as a board, and encased it in another double garbage bag full of ice. We were untroubled by sun or warmth of any kind on our trip home (howling wind, grey skies, and drizzle were the order of the day), and nine hours later we arrived in northwestern Missouri with our friend Tom still frozen solid. As I write this, he is bubbling gently in my slow cooker with a few carrots and leek tops, brewing up a batch of turkey stock and making the house smell delicious. So--insane or not? The way I see it, I didn't host, which means I don't have the fun of a fridge full of leftovers. This almost makes up for it.

Hope the end of your Thanksgiving (or regular) weekend has been full of good things. Until tomorrow!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Saturday shuffle



Re-discovered this week--possibly my favorite Sinéad O'Connor song of all. Blasted in the car today to help us power through the loooong drive home. Happy weekend all!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Friday digest

A random catalog of events from our last full day in the Lone Star State:

- My soon-to-be-former job has necessitated working during my holiday; probably less than I should have, and yet more than I would have liked. Roll on December 16.

- Today, briefly, it was me on the grassy knoll.

- Any day that includes a margarita at lunch, gingerbread-house construction, and homemade apple pie is a good day in my book.

- Not to mention a complete absence of any Black Friday-type activities. I didn't even manage to buy any souvenirs.

- I did, however, finally watch 127 Hours--at least 30 minutes of it through my fingers. Very intense, and yet seemed to last, if not actually 127 hours, then definitely more than two. And, of course, James Franco.

So that's the Friday holiday excitement around here. Hope yours has been equally enthralling.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving



Taking a break from digesting today's feast to wish all who celebrate a very Happy Thanksgiving--and all who don't a very happy Thursday/Friday! Since I can't improve on my 2008 Gratitude List, here it is again. Enjoy! I, meanwhile, will be trying to convince my husband to play board games.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Autumn birthdays

Having an autumn birthday seems kind of awesome, if only for the seasonal food themes that spill over into dessert. Particularly pumpkin, to which I am a recent convert. After failing to see the point of pumpkin desserts most of my life, I made these chocolate-pumpkin tartlets and have had to rethink my whole position on this matter. Seeking to explore the combination further, I volunteered to follow up my first-time catering gig with a November birthday cake for SP's husband without revealing my agenda.

"He'd love something with pumpkin," she suggested.

You don't say.

Pumpkin spice cake with chocolate cream cheese frosting
I made the cake using a double batch of my favorite Victoria sponge recipe, adding about a cup of pumpkin and a healthy teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice. I baked it in four layers, and filled and frosted it with an adaptation of my standard chocolate frosting recipe. The slight tang of the cream cheese helps to cut through the rich sweetness of the pumpkin, and the combination is pretty sensational. Could be a great Thanksgiving dessert, as well as a perfect autumn birthday cake.

4 blocks/4 oz/120 g unsweetened chocolate, melted
1 block/8 oz/240 g cream cheese, softened
1 lb/450 g powdered/icing sugar, sifted if necessary to remove any lumps
~2 Tbsp/30 ml milk

Using a hand mixer, beat together the chocolate and cream cheese until well combined, then gradually add the sugar, beating in until the mixture achieves a smooth, glossy consistency. Add milk as needed until the frosting reaches a consistency that is suitable for spreading, but will still hold its shape.

Makes enough to generously fill and frost one two- or four-layer cake.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Trip planning

We are heading off on another road trip tomorrow, to spend Thanksgiving in Dallas with friends. True to form, I am up late the night before, getting everything ready. Even more true to form, I have yet to pack my suitcase, but the food bag is organized and basically ready to go, containing the following for gifts:
Please note that this does not include the bag of food for us to have on hand for the trip down--that is separate. Also that I have only now checked the weather so that I can make final decisions on what clothes I need to bring. Priorities, people!

Any Thanksgiving, trip, or other planning going on round your way?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sunday puttering

Today was the first weekend day I had been able to spend at home in ages. I had no outings, children’s sporting events, invited guests, or in fact any commitment that interfered with my doing exactly what I wanted (or needed) to do. I mopped the kitchen floor. I cleaned both bathrooms. I did two loads of laundry. I took down the Halloween decorations, and hung an awesome wreath, made entirely of star anise, that SP gave me a couple of weeks ago. I even read for a while. And I did some holiday prep cooking. This morning, I canned six jars of blackberry-apple butter that I had cooked down overnight in the slow cooker. This evening, I cooked a huge batch of cranberry sauce and canned six jars of that as well. I could easily have canned twice that much, but I ran out of small jars, so the rest is cooling in a plastic storage box until I figure out what to do with it next. And in between, I made a batch of Sweet & spicy roasted mixed nuts. (I’m planning to use all of these for gifts, holiday baking, or just to have on hand as needed over the next six weeks.)

I think I feel almost ready to take on another working week. At least one that’s only half as long as usual.

Whole cranberry sauce
One year, I thought this needed something and threw in some lime zest and juice on a whim. It’s become a non-negotiable part of the recipe.

1 bag fresh cranberries
1 cup apple juice
zest & juice of 1 lime
½ - 1 cup sugar
pinch kosher salt

Bring cranberries and juice to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat. Lower and let simmer until most of the cranberries have popped and the mixture has become thick and saucelike. Add lime juice and zest, then start adding sugar a little at a time until you’ve reached a sweet/tart balance that you’re happy with. Add a pinch of salt and pour into a container to cool until needed. To can, follow the usual method and process in boiling water for 10 minutes.

You could also put this through a food mill if you'd like a smoother, more jelly-like sauce with no skins.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

New skills

I’ve written previously about some of the cooking skills I’ve been working on this year, including canning, making tapas, and most recently, catering a party for 40. I have not, however, limited my explorations to the kitchen: last month I bought a DLSR camera and took a photography workshop; Miss B and I have started learning to play the guitar this fall; and today, for the first time ever, I attempted pottery.

A friend of mine who has a pottery studio in Lawrence offered me (and Miss B, if she was interested) a free lesson in pot-throwing, and this afternoon we went to try it out. I expected Miss B to take up the other activity on offer—bowling with the dads—but somewhat to my surprise, she opted to stay in the studio and give pottery a try. I helped her figure out how to run her wheel, turned her over to K.’s capable instruction, and then settled myself in to start learning.

It was a very zen experience. I attempted four pots, and ruined (“crashed”) three of them, but considering I was starting from zero I hadn’t really expected anything else. K. told me that quite often adult students get frustrated at not being able to produce something right away, but I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty and putting everything else aside to focus on how to understand what the clay was doing and how what I did with my hands affected it. Even though I was sitting down the whole time, it reminded me of the kind of intense physical activity where you have to focus completely on what you’re doing and your brain switches off completely from the kind of low-level buzz of background thinking that is going on the rest of the time.

My one successful piece is going to end up as a mug, I think. Next time I go, I’ll get to figure out how to paint it. By then maybe I’ll have made enough progress using my DLSR to photograph it. Attractively lit, even.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Reader question!

This morning, I found an email in my inbox from a faraway friend and regular reader which included the following question:

"What the heck is this NaBloPoMo you keep mentioning anyway?"

Which made me wonder if perhaps she wasn't the only one wondering this. So, a bit of explanation:

NaBloPoMo stands for National Blog Posting Month, an informal blogging event which happens every November. By participating, bloggers challenge themselves to publish one blog post every day of the month. NaBloPoMo was conceived as a writing discipline for bloggers, along the lines of the already established National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which fiction writers challenge themselves to produce a 50,000-word manuscript in one month. Bloggers, however, have no such targets for length of blog posts.

One of the informational articles I read for background also notes the following:

"In some ways, NaBloPoMo is more challenging than NaNoWriMo, because NaBloPoMo participants cannot take days off or extensively modify their writing schedules: they must generate new material every day for thirty days. As a result, the attrition rate in the challenge is very high, with many participants dropping out in the first week of NaBloPoMo."

So I'm feeling pretty good that I'm past the halfway point and making steady progress--in fact, I'm finding the discipline is getting my brain working and ideas are percolating, which is just what I'd hoped for. Plus it's so nice to see that loooong list of posts under November, especially after last month, when I managed an all-time personal worst of a measly 3 posts.

N, I hope that answers your question. Thanks for following along!

Hope everyone is looking forward to or already having a nice weekend. More tomorrow!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ten things

Things I did today:

1. Wrangled a skittish cat through a Pet Day presentation to 50 first graders.

2. Bought 5 bags of cranberries and 10 pounds of apples.

3. Made the first public announcement (of several) that I am resigning from a project that has been part of my working life for nearly 10 years.

4. Improvised math-homework manipulatives out of colored paper clips.

5. Wore my winter coat for the first time.

6. Discovered an authentic small town nearby, hidden behind a barrier of strip-mall nowheresville.

7. Ate some truly delicious homemade Mexican food.

8. Managed to get to a KC bloggers' meetup for the first time in 6 months.

9. Used the word "pedestrian" in a sentence.

10. Kept on schedule for #NaBloPoMo with minutes to spare.

How 'bout you?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Website Wednesday: Prairie Edition

Almanzo James Wilder
Have you seen the website My Daguerrotype Boyfriend? Subtitled "Where Early Photography Meets Extreme Hotness?" And featuring, among many other old-time cuties, Mr. Laura Ingalls Wilder. Do go and enjoy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chocolate-pumpkin tartlets

Okay, I think I've recovered. I ate leftover Thai food for lunch today, always a sign that my appetite is fully operational. So, on to my last catering recipe: pumpkin-chocolate tartlets.

These were almost my downfall. I started off following this recipe from Delicious Dishings, but something went horribly wrong with my chocolate sablé crust, possibly because I made it in the food processor instead of a stand mixer as recommended. (This is what happens when you don't own a stand mixer. Chocolate sablé crust isn't happening with a hand mixer.) Whatever the reason, I could not roll the crust out; first, it was too crumbly, and then it kind of melted under pressure. I scraped it onto a parchment-lined baking tray, figuring I could bake it in a sheet and then cut out the bases that way, but this too was a non-starter: after only a brief bake in the oven, the dough went right back to being crumbly, and nearly every disk I managed to cut out promptly fell apart.

At 1:00 am on Sunday, I gave up in despair and went to bed, grateful that at least I could swap some other dessert in if necessary and no one (except SP) would ever know. But when I awoke six hours later, my subconscious had provided a solution to my dilemma: make the chocolate base out of brownies instead.

So I did. I made up a basic brownie batter, plopped it into a piping bag, and piped it into mini muffin cups. I underbaked them slightly, and as they came out of the oven I pressed down the center of each one to make a well for the pumpkin pastry cream filling. I finished assembling them at SP's house, using the same piping-bag trick to make the pastry cream look pretty, and topped them with a garnish of grated dark chocolate, as the original recipe intended.

I'd never eaten pumpkin and chocolate together before, but learned from these that it's a pretty great combination. I think the guests agreed; SP told me that she was upstairs with a group of guests when another guest came charging upstairs holding one. He burst into the room and exclaimed to one of her group, "Have you tried these? You have to try these!"

That's my kind of customer appreciation.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Unwanted souvenirs

Unfortunately, in addition to some great memories and a few carefully chosen souvenirs, it appears we also brought home some kind of unpleasant stomach bug that brought Miss B home from school early today and has left me totally uninterested in eating or even thinking about food. All the more cruel given that I finally managed to buy The Little House Cookbook, which I've been meaning to track down for ages and which not only includes recipes for all the many dishes described in all the books, but also sets them in the context of some pretty interesting agricultural, culinary, and social history. And as a bonus, I discovered The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook, produced from the author's own recipe notebook. Yes, of course I bought both of them. What better souvenir(s) could I take away from such a memorable visit? And they will endure after this malaise is a distant memory, even if I can't bring myself to look at them just now.

Hoping to be back to regularly scheduled #NaBloPoMo food natterings tomorrow. I've still got a pumpkin-chocolate tartlet recipe from last week to post about!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Prairie weekend

I had a prairie kind of weekend: I went to visit Rocky Ridge Farm, where Laura Ingalls Wilder lived for more than 60 years and wrote the "Little House" books:


got up close and personal with some bison at Prairie State Park:



and rounded off my 19th-century field trip with a visit to the now-defunct US Army Fort Scott:


Oh, and I also went to a "dessert lounge" for the first time ever. Kind of the antithesis of a prairie experience:


Is this a thing now? It would be nice to know just how out of the loop I'm getting while I'm off examining calico sunbonnets and such.

What adventures did you have this weekend?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Saturday shuffle



This song is in very heavy rotation on my iPod at the moment. Eddie Vedder on the ukulele--sounds like a bad joke, doesn't it? But it's so, so good.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Veterans' Day

This post originally appeared on November 11, 2009. 

Armistice Day. Poppy Day. Remembrance Day. Whatever you call it, please spare a moment on November 11 to remember and honor those who have given their skills, their bodies and brains, and their lives in armed service—including those who serve today.

Even if you vehemently oppose the conflicts, past or present, in which they took part; even if you consider their capabilities and lives wasted as a result of bad political decisions, blundering generalship, or misguided ideals; even if you disagree in every particular with the use of force to settle political disputes: please, pause for a moment to honor the individuals: their courage, which was maybe just fear overcome; their fortitude and endurance; and the things that they lost, and that we have, and have the luxury to take for granted, every day.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

- from "Anthem for Doomed Youth", Wilfred Owen, 1917

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thanksgiving in a cup

This was a collaboration. When SP and I were discussing what she wanted to serve, she requested something that would provide all the flavors of Thanksgiving dinner in one small package, and that could easily be eaten standing up. I went away and cogitated, and this was the result. They were a big, big hit.

Thanksgiving turkey salad in wonton cups
The idea for wonton cups came from the endlessly inspirational Dinner with Julie. I baked the wonton cups two days ahead of time and sealed them in heavy-duty zipper storage bags, ready for stuffing at the last moment. They were perfect on the day (aside from the two that got crushed in transit).

This recipe has quite a few steps and ingredients, but none are difficult—it just takes time and a bit of planning.

96 wontons
4 cups stock or water
2 cloves garlic, peeled
6 sticks celery
4 turkey breasts
1 cup dried cranberries
2 Tbsp bacon fat or butter
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
½ cup white wine
2 cups turkey stock
2 cups panko bread crumbs
2-3 Tbsp mayonnaise
1-2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
Salt & pepper

To make the wonton cups: press wontons into mini-muffin tins, making sure to firmly press folds against the sides and keep overflow from flopping over on itself. Bake in a 350F/180C oven for 10-20 minutes, or until golden. Set aside to cool.

To prepare the turkey: bring stock or water and garlic to a simmer. Add the turkey breasts, then chop and add 2 of the celery sticks. Poach until fully cooked. (I did this in the slow cooker, and left them in for about 2 hours.) When ready, remove from heat, place in a storage container and pour some of the poaching liquid over, and refrigerate. (I did this the day before.) Reserve the rest of the poaching liquid: you will need it for the next two steps.

To prepare the cranberries: place the cranberries in a heatproof bowl or jug, and pour the hot poaching liquid over. Set aside to steep until plump and juicy.

To prepare the bread sauce: in a small saucepan on medium heat, melt bacon fat. Add flour and stir to combine; cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring continuously, or until the flour starts to smell cooked. Add wine and continue stirring, then stock—more stirring. Bring mixture just to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the gravy has begun to thicken up. Add bread crumbs and stir to combine, then leave to simmer until a thick sauce forms. Season with salt & pepper to taste and set aside. (I made this the day before also, and by the day of the event it had cooled to a solid mass.)

When ready to assemble the salad: first dice the turkey into small chunks and place in a large bowl. Chop the remaining 4 celery sticks and add to the turkey, then drain and add the steeped cranberries in ½-cup measures until you have an amount that you consider sufficient. Add chunks of the bread sauce and begin turning to mix thoroughly. Continue adding cranberries and bread sauce to achieve a proportional mix of ingredients that makes you happy. Add mayonnaise and mustard to bind, and salt & pepper to taste.

To assemble the cups: stuff each wonton cup with a heaping teaspoon of salad. Makes 96 wontons, with enough turkey salad left over for a couple of sandwiches.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Mixed nuts

On Sunday morning, I had a momentary panic that the seven menu items I had already decided on and begun preparing would not after all be enough food to adequately stuff the 40 or so Vintage Home Society members expected at SP’s that evening. This was brought on by observing the double batch of Cheddar-Pecan Shortbread I had just finished packing, rattling around loosely in the bottom of a medium-sized plastic storage box, looking thoroughly insufficient. Don’t caterers always have everything in enormous quantities? What was I doing showing up with one of the menu items packed in a lunchbox-sized container that wasn’t even full? Could I make my amateur status any more apparent?

I frantically took stock of my supplies, equipment, and recipe collection to see what I could rustle up that would supplement the paltry shortbread rations in the “nibbles” section of the menu, and maintain its autumn theme, all without throwing me completely off schedule (or kilter).

Once again the slow cooker saved the day. Aided and abetted by a bunch of nuts.

Oh, and by the way--there was more than enough food. Probably would have been even without the nuts. But over-catering is a security blanket, especially for a novice.

Sweet and spicy roasted mixed nuts
Adapted from Nigella Bites
Toasting nuts in the slow cooker is much easier than in the oven—no real need to worry about burning, which can happen very quickly in the oven or on the stovetop.

2 lbs/1 kg assorted unsalted nuts (I used almonds and hazelnuts because that’s what I had in the pantry)
4 tsp/20 ml maple syrup
2 Tbsp/30 g browned butter
2 4 in/8 cm sprigs of fresh rosemary
½ to 1 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp/10 g kosher salt

Preheat the slow cooker to its highest setting. When hot, add the nuts and allow to cook with the lid somewhat ajar (to let any moisture escape) until they begin to smell toasted. Stir regularly while this is happening; it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on the age and quality of your slow cooker—not to mention your nuts.

When nuts begin to smell toasted, lower the heat. In a small bowl, stir together the maple syrup, butter, and cayenne, and mix to your satisfaction. Chop the rosemary very finely and add.

Pour mixture over nuts in slow cooker and stir to coat each thoroughly. Sprinkle salt over and stir again. Shut slow cooker off and leave roasted nuts in, uncovered, to cool.

Makes about 2 lbs/1 kg of nuts. Supremely nibblable.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Autumn sangria

I put up a post last July expressing my belief that "recipe for sangria" is an oxymoron. Having made umpteen additional batches since then, my belief has hardened into certainty. Having said that, here's what I did to make an autumn sangria for Sunday's party. (Unfortunately I forgot to take any pictures of it--sorry about that.)

3 apples
1 pear
1 half pint blackberries
2 Tbsp lime juice
2-4 Tbsp sugar
2 bottles Chianti
2 bottles Prosecco

Core the apples and pear, slice into thin rings, and dump in a bowl or wide-mouth pitcher.* Add blackberries and stir to combine everything. Sprinkle liberally with lemon juice and sugar; toss to coat thoroughly, mashing the fruit a little bit as you go to release some juice. Open and add all four bottles of wine, or one each of Chianti and Prosecco if your container can't hold as much. (You can top it up later.)

Best if made at least an hour before party time to allow the flavors to meld. Suggestions for keeping it cold without watering it down:

- freeze Sprite or a similar citrus fizzy drink in ice cube trays
- freeze grapes or berries
- freeze some of the wine

Serves approximately 20 glasses. Adapted considerably from Southern Living.

* We served it in a giant glass decanter jar with a spigot at the bottom. I'm not exaggerating the giant part: we poured in four bottles of wine and it was barely half full.

Tomorrow: nibbles!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Party menu

Feeling a bit more recovered from this weekend's attempt to play professional caterer. At least enough to run down the menu:
I've included links to the recipes that are already available here, and I'll provide the others over the next few days. Now I need to go lie down again.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Silent Sundays: amateur catering



I'm too tired to say anything coherent, so instead here's some pictures of my first-ever attempt at full-scale catering. Menu to follow tomorrow.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Saturday digest

Some random thoughts about what’s happening here at the end of a busy Saturday:

- DP has flitted off for a few days on a work jaunt with a colleague; we dropped him off at the airport late this morning. Given that we are used to him being gone for 4-6 weeks at a stretch, a 5-day absence seems like no big deal. Let’s hope that that is in fact the case!

- Miss B is in transports of joy because she left out a significant haul of candy for the Candy Fairy, and received a stuffed unicorn in return. Is this a post-Halloween thing where you are? I had never heard of it until we moved to the Midwest, but we’ve done it the last two years--even though, to quote Suburban Matron, it brings on one of those “moments when you don't just suspect, you KNOW that you are raising some of the most indulged creatures on earth, at any time, ever.” So very true, but mitigated somewhat by the fact that that little critter makes her so very happy.

- My friend SP is hosting a meeting of the local Vintage Homes Society at her house tomorrow (Sunday). She and her husband have been painstakingly renovating their early 20th century house for the last 2+ years, doing most of the work themselves, and this is their chance to show it off to some people who can really appreciate it. I offered to help with the food, knowing that SP loathes cooking, and as a result I am essentially doing a full-on catering job. It’s providing some useful practical experience and learning for me, since as much as I love to cook, I’ve never attempted to do it in any kind of professional capacity. More on all that later.

- After one serious rainstorm this week, we’ve gone from full-blown autumn color to naked trees everywhere. It looks like the bleak midwinter out there, but daytime temperatures are still in the 60s F (15ish C). Since some of my friends and relatives on the East Coast are still coping with the aftermath of last week’s freak October snowstorm, I’ve got no complaints to offer about the weather.

- I’m planning to take advantage of tonight’s time change extra hour to stay up, roll out pie crust, and watch Saturday Night Live (all at the same time!). It ends at midnight Central time, which tonight is like 11pm! Do I know how to party or what?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Halloween candy

I thought I had bought amount the same amount of candy as last year, and DP thought we had about the same number of trick-or-treaters as last year, or maybe even a few more. But there must have been a serious miscalculation somewhere, because as you can see, we’ve got a lot of leftover candy. Last year I came across Dinner with Julie’s idea for Leftover Halloween Candy Cookies, and excitedly parceled out small bags of various fun-size whatevers, inspired by the thought of recycling them into delicious treats.

They’re all still sitting on the bottom shelf in my pantry.

This year I’m not going to kid myself. I’m just boxing up all the leftover candy and sending it off to some people who will really appreciate it—servicepeople on active duty overseas, most likely in Afghanistan. Either I’ll get an address for a specific person from DP or, failing that, I’ll send it off to a place like Operation Shoebox, which accepts all such donations and makes sure they get to people who will appreciate them. If you can’t face the thought of even one more mini chocolate bar, perhaps this information might be useful to you as well?

http://www.operationshoebox.com/
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...