Monday, December 26, 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!

Monday, December 19, 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.

Friday, December 16, 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.

Tuesday, December 13, 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.

Monday, December 12, 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.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Saturday shuffle

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!

Friday, December 9, 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.

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):

Wednesday, December 7, 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!).

Tuesday, December 6, 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.

Monday, December 5, 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....

Sunday, December 4, 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.

Saturday, December 3, 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.

Friday, December 2, 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.

Thursday, December 1, 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!
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