Monday, December 31, 2012

2013 eve

Something tells me I'm not going to make it to midnight tonight - probably the same thing that prompted me to stay home for the holiday weekend, avoid the fireworks, and not attempt dinner out. You could call it an attack of grinchiness, or just sheer laziness; I attribute it to my deep-seated resistance to going along with the one night of the year when you're supposed to have plans. Instead, I cooked a regular Monday-night dinner, and made Miss B and DP's favorite dessert, suitably decorated. We ate outside, and talked over the things we liked best about 2012 and our hopes for 2013. That's my kind of New Year's Eve; hope yours involves your favorite kind of celebration too.

Thanks for another great year and see you in 2013!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Calling birds

Well, nobody has sent us any live fowl yet, but thanks to the vagaries of Australia Post delivery, we're enjoying the 12 Days of Christmas to the full with random present deliveries. Here's some of today's haul:

Note The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook in the top photo - I am a happy, happy cook today.

Speaking of cooking, reveling in the 12 Days of Christmas also includes some festive socializing, now that everyone's done with gift and prep stress and most people have some time off from work and can enjoy the season, rather than feeling like they're checking off another obligation on their seasonal To Do list. We had friends over for dinner last night; I made a big batch of turkey risotto, a kale salad, and some rolls. Since I had also decreed, late last week, that some of the Eight Days of Christmas Baking could come after Christmas (a revolutionary concept that not only preserved my sanity, but also made the baking a lot more fun), Miss B and I carried out our plan of festive cupcakes:

I also made a batch of coconut clusters, in case there was anyone attending who wasn't interested in cupcakes (even though this has never happened yet).

How go your holiday shenanigans? 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas recap

One of the perks of living in the British Commonwealth is that the day after Christmas - Boxing Day - is a holiday in its own right, and the majority of people have it off from work. We went for a walk this afternoon, to get some fresh air and run a couple of errands to a couple of shops we knew would be open. We strolled along deserted streets and 90% of the businesses we passed were closed - some of them just for today, some until after New Year's, and one for the whole of summer vacation (it is scheduled to re-open February 5!). It was pretty much the only serious exertion in a day that included staying in pajamas until almost lunchtime, skyping with various North American relatives, and reminiscing about yesterday's Christmas lunch (while plotting what to do with a fairly enormous stash of leftovers).

There were six of us for lunch, and we ate outside! That's a Christmas first for me. Here's what we had:

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

The guests have gone home, the turkey carcass is already poaching in the slow cooker, and I'm just popping in for a moment - before I go flop on the couch to watch Christmas Vacation and peruse my obligatory Christmas cookbook - to wish everyone else as peaceful and joyous a Christmas as the one we're just finishing up.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

20 December

Finally made my mincemeat yesterday. Four days is plenty of steeping time, right?

Two editorial deadlines looming.

Trying to wrap up, or progress, or just keep straight, various workstreams, large and small, before everyone goes offline for the holidays.

End of the academic year for DP and Miss B: teacher presents, colleague presents, holiday and good-bye events.

Determined to write and stuff 10 cards per night during my nightly hour of TV time – which I haven’t had yet this week.

Four loads of clean laundry waiting to be folded.

How many days since I updated my blog?

Drawing up workplans for 2013.

Locating and digging out boxes of Christmas decorations from  the storage piles and making the house festive, little by little. (Must remember to put them all back in the same place.)

Must get to the post office and buy stamps, even if it’s already manifestly obvious that no one’s going to get their cards by Christmas.

I can’t keep using up the easy options on the Eight Days of Christmas Baking list, otherwise I’ll have nothing but complicated  things ieft at the end.

Have I paid the balance on the vacation cottage yet? And the Missouri year-end tax bills? And the quarterly utility bills which all came in at once?

Bought 12 gifts this morning – might be 75% of the way through the list now, if I can bring myself to count.

Strategizing how to get a Christmas ham home from the butcher without a car.

Wondering if Christmas cards are enough to make it up to the friends to whom I’ve owed emails for 6 months.

Uh-oh, I really need to make those apricots into jam. And those peaches. And those strawberries….

Etc., etc., etc. Until:

Reminding myself, when it all feels like too much and I can’t deal anymore, of the important thing: that everyone I love is safe and well. And that that’s all that really matters, in this or any other holiday season.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Puff pastry

Is there anything that you can't improve by wrapping it in puff pastry?

We're coming to the end of the Australian school year, and that means that in the canteen we're cutting down on ordering fresh food, and trying to use up what's already there - EDF on a large scale. Puff pastry does an excellent job of packaging up odds and ends of food, and makes them look great - and easy to eat out of hand - in the process. We've been serving up lots of "puff" specials for morning tea, and after watching hordes of schoolkids scarf them up, I've been inspired to come home and scavenge in my own fridge.

Some things I've wrapped in puff pastry lately:

- leftover sausage (either alone, or with spicy mustard and cheddar cheese - see above)
- leftover chocolate ganache
- blackberry-apple butter
- leftover meat and veg
- leftover apple pie filling (or any pie filling, or jam, or...)

I'll stop there, but I think you get the picture. Please feel free to share your puff-pastry excesses with the rest of us.

Friday, November 30, 2012

30 days

Note zested lime wedge - for topping up the citrus sugar jar. Frugal!

It's November 30. It's Friday. And I've made it through another round of #NaBloPoMo. I think a bit of a celebration is in order, yes?

NaBloPoMo sour
This is what the CVF evolved into after I ran out of cumquat julp, around the same time I discovered that you could buy lemon lime and bitters (my favorite non-alcoholic Australian beverage) pre-made and bottled at the grocery store. Just the thing for the end of NaBloPoMo, especially when the temperature has suddenly jumped to 35C/95F.

1 shot/1.5 oz/45 ml vodka
2 Tbsp/1 oz/30 ml citrus juice (I used blood orange for the flavor and lovely color)
1 Tbsp/.5 oz/15 ml simple syrup
5 oz/150 ml bottled lemon lime and bitters
fat wedge of lime 
Fill an 8 oz/240 ml drinking glass halfway with ice, then add first four ingredients. Stir to combine. Squeeze lime and drop in glass.

Makes 1 fizzy, tart, celebratory cocktail.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Raspberry muffins

Have I spent enough time yet waxing rhapsodic about Ratio? About how it’s fundamentally changed the way I approach cooking and baking? About how it’s like having the Rosetta Stone for deciphering, and then adapting, existing recipes, to say nothing of creating new ones? About how I love it so much I gave it its own blog tag?

No? You want to hear more? Oh, go ahead, twist my arm. Allow me, if you will, to explain the construction of a Ratio recipe.

Ratio raspberry muffins
Lately these are my go-to choice for playdate baking; they mix up and bake quickly, I pretty much always have the ingredients on hand, and small children devour them. (One recent small visitor ate four.)

Here is the basic ratio for a muffin batter:

2 parts flour : 2 parts liquid : 1 part egg : 1 part butter

Michael Ruhlman suggests that a recipe based on 8 oz/240 g flour should yield about a dozen muffins. So, working on this premise, I constructed the following recipe.

Dry ingredients
6 oz/180 g plain flour
2 oz/60 g whole wheat flour
2 tsp/10 g baking powder (working on another rule of thumb, gleaned elsewhere: 1 tsp/5 g per cup/4 oz/120 g)
1 tsp/5 g salt
4 Tbsp/60 g sugar (I used my citrus sugar here, for a little extra je ne sais quoi)

Wet ingredients
6 oz/180 g milk
2 oz/60 g Greek yogurt (for a slightly denser and more complex muffin)
1 tsp/5 g vanilla
2 eggs (= 4 oz/120 g)
4 oz/120 g (1 stick) butter, melted

1 cup raspberries (I used frozen, and tossed them with more citrus sugar before adding)

Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Grease (or line) a 12-cup muffin pan and set aside.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a medium-sized jug, whisk together all the wet ingredients except the butter; add the butter slowly and carefully last, so as not to scramble the egg. Dump wet into dry and whisk until just combined. Fold in raspberries gently until evenly distributed.

Scoop batter (it will be thick) into muffin cups with ice-cream scoop or large spoon. Bake for 15-20 minutes, rotating pan halfway through.

Makes 12 muffins.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Encouraging local graffiti - very appropriate for one coming down the homestretch of a morning run (where I first spotted it) or of #NaBloPoMo.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On running

For most of my life, I’ve viewed exercise as a means to an end. Whether training for or playing a sport, walking to a specified destination, or starting a workout program to lose weight or get in better shape, the exercise was always secondary to some other goal; and so my motivation to exercise has waxed or waned depending upon the importance of the goal balanced against other pressures in my life.

The exercise program I had been following when we were living in Missouri fell completely by the wayside in the upheaval of the move, and for the first few months that we were living here. Between walking Miss B to and from school, and doing various errands on foot, I was walking 3-4 mi (6-8 km) most days anyway, often carrying bags of stuff, and I figured that was plenty of exercise. But then, during the October school holidays, sometime in the middle of a week of no-break single parenting and work frustration, I thought: something’s missing. I need something that I’m not getting. And I resolved that, when school started up again and I got some untethered adult time, I was going to try to get back to some kind of dedicated exercise routine.

I decided to focus on running, mainly because the last time I lived in Canberra, I started a walk-to-run program  that I remembered enjoying and sticking with for a long time, well into my return to the US. Running also doesn’t require much investment in equipment or infrastructure; all you really need is a decent pair of running shoes (although something that plays music to run by is nice too), and the willingness to spend some time using them.

So I started – or, really, re-started – the walk-to-run routine about six weeks ago. But this time is different, because this time it isn’t a means to an end. That's because I quickly realized that what I had been missing was the way strenuous, dedicated exercise, but especially running, makes me feel. Not physically so much, although that’s good too; no, it’s what it does emotionally: that endorphin rush that makes me feel, for a little while at least, like I can do anything. It doesn’t matter that I may sound like an asthmatic sheep to passing pedestrians, or that an energetic preschooler could probably lap me; when I’m running, I’m invincible, at least for a few minutes, and that’s a feeling I hadn't even realized I was hooked on, and need on an ongoing basis.

Earlier today, in a rambling phone conversation covering many topics, I shared all these thoughts with my sister M, a runner of 27 years’ standing.

“Congratulations,” she replied. “You’ve crossed over.”

Time will tell. But for someone who used to joke that she only ran at gunpoint, it’s not a bad start.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Making gravy

Yes, this picture is a repeat - but look! Gravy! See?
Along with bringing an apple pie, a bottle of prosecco, and a festive attitude, my main contribution to Thanksgiving dinner was making gravy. I kept asking if there was anything I could do to help, and at the appropriate moment, the hostess asked how I felt about taking on that task.

I used to get really freaked out about making gravy, probably because I had to teach myself how to make it and try to figure out what a roux was supposed to look like when I’d never seen anyone else make one. I remember spending a lot of time stressing about the roux – was it too thin? Too chunky? Had  I measured (or weighed) the ingredients precisely to get the right proportions? Had I cooked it long enough? Too long? Was it actually thickening the gravy?

Then, as I was working my way through the endlessly fascinating and instructive Ratio, I came to the chapter on roux, in particular this sentence: “…it’s most convenient to measure [the ingredients for roux] by sight, melting your butter to cook off some of the water and adding flour in increments until you have the consistency of a paste.” And, even though I’m sure I had come across the same basic information multiple times already in other places, somehow this time I finally absorbed that roux is a means to an end: thickening soup, sauce, or gravy. All you have to do is create a paste of fat (preferably, but not necessarily, butter) and flour, and it will do that job. How thick or thin you make the paste is up to you; the consistency of the finished product will vary depending upon that, plus how much liquid you then add. If the gravy is too thick, you can add more liquid; if it's too thin, you can turn up the heat and let it reduce for a few minutes.

Grasping those basic pieces of information completely demystified the gravy-making process for me, and removed  my need to consult recipes from then on. Now I just make gravy, following the same basic process, and varying the ingredients based upon where I want the finished product to end up.

Basic gravy method
In addition to being infinitely adaptable, this method also has the benefit of being able to be made almost entirely ahead. Rather than frantically trying to concoct gravy from scratch at the last minute when the rest of dinner is ready, you can do the first four steps earlier in the prep process, then stir in the drippings, season, and serve. Much less nerve-wracking if you, like me, are made tense by last-minute cooking.

Step 1: melt fat in a medium-sized saucepan over low-medium heat. (I generally use 2-3 Tbsp/30-45 g butter here, but sometimes I use bacon fat or olive oil instead. You can also sauté minced onions, garlic, mirepoix etc. at this step if you want that kind of thing in your gravy.)

Step 2: whisk flour into melted fat until you have created a paste in the bottom of the pan, and continue cooking for a couple of minutes until the flour is no longer raw. Michael Ruhlman says that a roux is cooked “when it begins to smell like a lightly cooked piecrust.”

Step 3: deglaze the pan with a healthy slug of wine and continue whisking. This usually turns the roux into a thick and fluffy paste in my experience. (I use either white or red, depending on what I’m making and what’s open, and have not hesitated to use sparkling wine if nothing else was handy.)

Step 4: pour in 1-2 cups/240-480 ml of liquid slowly, still whisking. (Milk for a creamy gravy; stock for a more standard gravy. On Thanksgiving, all that was available was water, so I used that.) Bring this just to a boil, then let simmer. At this point the roux should do its work and the gravy should thicken up.

Step 5: add drippings from whatever hunk of meat you’re making the gravy to accompany. (Sometimes it’s nice to remove the fat, but not always feasible.) Bring gravy back up to a simmer, stirring frequently to ensure everything is mixed consistently.

Step 6: taste and check seasonings; add salt and pepper, plus other seasonings as you deem appropriate. (I wait to salt until after adding the pan drippings, as these usually come from meat that has been salted, possibly making additional salt unnecessary.)

Step 7: serve hot.
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