Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas 2010

Well, Christmas has come and gone. Things have been a little hectic here, what with the three Christmas celebrations and both Jamie and Dave getting sick. But I wanted to get a few pictures up that capture the weekend -- before the 2011 craziness begins.

 Here is Jamie with his favorite present: the Fisher Price Big Wheels Garage. We searched long and hard to find a toy as cool as the vintage FP garage Jamie loves to play with at Val's house. Spending over $200 on eBay seemed a little cooky, so I was happy to find a pretty cool substitute. James LOVED this toy. After he had been playing with it for 30 minutes, I contemplated taking all of his other presents from under the tree and saving them for his birthday.

 Kara is showing off the mini fairies she got. What is is about princesses and fairies? They never fail to disappoint. I hope that I can prevent these pixies from being eaten by our unruly dog.

I felt the need to get Jamie his own Phillies hat. He has been borrowing his sister's. Shockingly, their heads are the same size. Big brain in that boy, right? He wore it for approximately 12 seconds. Yep, that's my hand in the picture trying to get him to leave it on for one photo. And by the way, Santa does, in fact, rock.

 This is Kara at the end of the day. See that crazed look in her eye? She doesn't even know what present she is holding anymore. Total and complete overload.

This picture embodies how I think we all felt by the end of the day. Sadly, this was taken around 2 PM.

After Christmas we got a huge snow storm. So fun. We bundled up Jamie in his snow suit so he could brave the sub-freezing temperatures. He looked so cute, and actually loved the snow -- except for the fact that he could barely walk.

Dave got  new lens for his camera and a tripod. Here is one of the amazing pictures he took.

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cinnamon Buns

I wanted to make Kara's teacher's something for the holidays. Something other than cookies. So I decided to make them each a tin of cinnamon buns. I figured they would be a good holiday treat, or they can be easily frozen for a time when we are not quite so inundated with sugar and baked goods.

I have been wanting to try Pioneer Woman's cinnamon roll recipe for a while and this occasion offered me the perfect excuse. A few notes on her recipe:
  •  I made the dough the night before which worked great. If you do the same, make sure you check on it before you go to bed. It definitely needed to be punched down. I  recommend making the dough ahead of time and refrigerating it for at least several hours - the cold dough is much easier to deal with.
  • I added raisins. You could also add nuts or apples.
  • I didn't have "maple flavor" for the maple icing - I just added about a tbsp of dark maple syrup.
  • I did add the 1/4 cup of coffee, and I also added about a tsp of vanilla extract.
  • The icing isn't really that maple-ish. It it, however, unbelievably delicious.
  • She calls for 1/2 cup milk for the icing. I needed more like 1 to 1 1/2 cups to make it thin enough.
  • This makes a TON of cinnamon buns. I got 8 round tins out of it.
  • This would be very fun to make with kids.

Let me say, that this recipe entirely lives up to the hype. They looked so pretty. I had so much I gave a tin to my sister in law and mother in law, too. Christmas carbs for everyone!

Here is a pan right out of the oven.

Here they are after I dumped a healthy portion of the maple icing on them.

Goodness gracious! Yum.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Spirit of Giving

Christmas is but a few days away and I will admit that I am fairly shocked by the amount of stuff we have purchased this year. I love giving gifts to my husband and children, especially when I totally nail it, by which I mean that I manage to get them something that they love but really didn't expect to actually get. I am pretty sure the Ariel (aka: "The Little Mermaid") Barbie will be that gift for Kara. Dave reads this blog, so no predictions there.

Over the past couple of years my mom has insisted that we drastically reduce the amount of stuff we give her. She can get pretty worked up about the over-commercialization during the holiday season. And, in principle, I agree with her. God knows, we could all make do without nearly as much stuff around. In the spirit of giving my mom something she would actually like, I started contributing to a charity in her name. Last year, I made a donation to CARE to send a girl to school for a year. This year, I have decided to stay a little more local. On the off chance that she will read this before Saturday, I will keep the specifics to myself, but if you are looking for a last minute gift, consider a charitable gift.

Need some ideas? Here you go...

  • Nicholas Kristof's article in the New York Times on Sunday provides a list of charities that don't often get the attention they deserve but are worthy causes.
  • Charity Navigator is a site that evaluates charities in terms of how they allocate their funds.
  • Donors Choose is a site that lets you give to teachers to improve their classrooms. This was profiled on Oprah recently. Very cool idea.
  • Charity Choice allows you to purchase a gift card for someone and then they can choose how to allocate the funds to any of the hundreds of participating organizations.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Cookies

This weekend, Kara and I made Christmas cookies. This is one of my favorite holiday pastimes.Christmas cookies are not especially easy, quick or neat, but I find them immensely satisfying to make, especially now that I have a little helper. I know it is probably not on any pediatrician's list of milestones, but I think that it is pretty remarkable when your child actually helps you in the kitchen. I have made cookies with Kara since she was three, I think, but this was the first year that she basically worked at it on her own and produced some really lovely looking cookies. See that candy cane in the center of the picture? That was all Kara.

This recipe comes from my stepmother, and though I am not at all close with her now, I have fond memories of making cookies with her. Cooking together was one of the few ways that we could spend conflict-free time together. So in the spirit of not just conflict-free but joyous holiday time with your family, I give you the best Christmas cookie recipe ever.

  • With a hand mixer or in a stand up mixer, cream 1/2 cup margarine.
  • Add 3/4 cup sugar and beat until fluffy
  • Add 2 egg yolks and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract. Reserve the whites.
  • Add 1 tbsp cream, half and half or whole milk
  • Sift together 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp baking powder and combine into wet ingredients
  • Divide dough into 4 quarters, wrap in wax paper and freeze until ready to use. You can make the dough days ahead of time.
  • When you are ready, roll out the dough to scant 1/4 inch thickness on a floured surface. It may take some additional flour to prevent sticking. Cut out shapes and place on non-stick or greased regular cookie sheet. Use a pastry brush to wet the cookies with the egg white. If you want to use sprinkles, sprinkle away. If you plan to ice your cookies, pop them in the oven. Don't skip the egg wash, it make the cookies look much prettier.
  • Bake at 350 for about 7 minutes.
  • Note: I usually double this recipe. Also, you can reserve part of the dough and add 1-2 tbsp cocoa powder, depending on the amount of dough you saved, to make chocolate cookies. You can also add food coloring to make red/.green cookies. You can also add a little cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice to make a spicier cookie. These are flexible cookies.
I really love using icing to decorate the cookies. Here is a basic Royal Icing recipe. (You can find about a million more on the web.)
-Mix 1 box (1 lb) confectioners sugar with 5 tbsp meringue powder, 1/2 cup water and a squirt of lemon juice. Use a hand mixer to beat until icing is thick and smooth. You can add more sugar or water to achieve the thickness you are looking for. You can also use 2 egg whites instead of meringue powder. I have done this many times and no one has died of salmonella, but when I am decorating with kids, I usually don't risk it.
Cute gel colors - I even saw these at Target last week.

-Divide the icing into small bowls and add either food coloring or invest in gel pastes. I made this leap last year, and it was wall worth it. Gel coloring makes much brighter colors and there are a wide variety of color choices. You can buy them at craft stores like Michael's or online at any baking supply company. Yes, they cost more than the food coloring that you get in your local spice aisle, but they last a long time and can be used with any white icing to decorate your next batch of cupcakes.

-If you are cooking with kids, definitely let them do the addition of colors to the white icing. Good times were had by all.

When you have the colors you want, spoon icing into plastic sandwich bags and cut a tiny hole in the bottom corner. Use the bags to pipe icing on to cookies. You can also leave the icing in bowls and use paint brushes, Popsicle sticks, or toddler utensils to spread it on the cookies.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A New Favorite and a "Challenge"

One of my favorite pastimes in the blogging world is looking for good book blogs. Much like foodie blogs or mommy blogs, I think the best book blogs are written by people who manage to be personal without being inappropriate, opinionated without being overbearing, smart without being self-satisfied and funny without being too impressed by their own wit. As you can tell, I have high standards.

One of my new favorites is Life...with Books. Written by Jenners, it is both a great source of book reviews and a window into the life of this very witty stay at home mom. Jenners meets the most important criteria for a personal blog: she seems like a woman I would want to hang out with, like the kind of person I would want to talk to at a party, or lunch, or better yet over drinks. She seems cool in the best sense of the word. It doesn't hurt that she has, in my humble opinion, very good taste in books - in that her tastes are similar to mine.

To mark the beginning of the new year, Jenners has posted a Take a Chance Challenge. The 10 categories give you ways to find your next book and perhaps read something out of your wheelhouse. If you are dorky blogger like me, you can link your posts about the books you read back to Jenners' site. But if you are less of a nerd, you could just use her list as a template for choosing books. I tend to read what the kids I tutor read or what my book group is reading. Beyond that, my book choices can be pretty haphazard, so I am looking forward to a little, just a little, structure for this year. Besides, the competitive side of me likes the idea of a challenge. 

So, if you too crave some reading guidance, check out Jenners' blog and her 2011 challenge. Happy Reading!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Shameless Plug - Candy Cane Joe-Joes

I love shopping at Trader Joes. I go there at least once a week. I love the reasonable prices, friendly staff, variety of foods, their improved efforts to support local farmers, their minimally processed prepared foods, the delicious chocolates, the cat cookies, the shredded Swiss and Gruyere cheese, the cilantro chicken won tons...

Clearly, I could go on and on.

It's ok to have cookies when you also have grapes on the counter too, right?

I don't typically buy a lot of cookie products, but from time to time (like the times Kara comes with me), we get the Joe-Joes. These yummy chocolate or vanilla sandwich cookies should not be confused with Oreos. They are better than Oreos, especially the vanilla ones. (I am sure Nabisco would like to get the patent protection a little tighter on that recipe.)  During the holidays, they are selling Candy Cane Joe-Joes. I was encouraged by the cashier to buy them ASAP as supplies are limited! She was being so nice to Jamie, and they did look yummy, so I happily added them to the pile of food I was already buying.

Let me tell you, it was money well spent. These cookies are just the right amount of minty with teeny candy cane bits in the icing. Kara has proclaimed them the best Joe-Joe ever. If you have a Trader Joes nearby, I strongly urge you to buy these cookies. Remember, supplies are limited!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Holiday Faves: Buckeyes & Rum Balls

I am all about holiday baking these days. I will admit to getting a little obsessed at this time of year. What can I say? I love making cookies, and I especially love decorating them with Kara. But folks can't live on cookies alone. So over the years I have added two holiday candy-like treats to our repertoire - buckeyes, which are peanut butter balls covered in chocolate, like a Reese's cup on steroids, and rum balls which are pretty much what they sound like. Not only are these candies delicious, they are easy to make and require no baking.

By the way, when this part of the holiday sweets fest is going on, we are all about the ball jokes - after the kids are in bed, of course. I know, it's very highbrow around here. I think we were inspired by one of my all time favorite Saturday Night Live skits where Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon and Alec Baldwin spoof NPR cooking shows. If you haven't seen it recently, or ever, check it out. I believe it is called "NPR's Delicious Dish - Schweddy Balls". It's basically one long series of pastry ball innuendo - it is really funny.

All lewd jokes aside, try these two recipes when you are making holiday treats.

-With a hand mixer, cream
  • 1 1/2 cups smooth peanut butter (not the natural variety - think Jiff, Skippy, Safeway brand etc.)
  • 1 stick of butter softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 cups confectioners sugar. You read that right - these are serious business.
  • 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs. You can use vanilla wafer crumbs too.
-Chill for 15 minutes or until the peanut butter mix is firm - the colder it is, the easier to roll the balls. Roll into 1 inch balls and set on parchment or wax paper lined cookie sheet.
-Freeze for 10-15 minutes until the balls are firm. If you live where it is cold, just set the sheet outside for a bit.
-While the balls are chilling, melt 6 oz (1/2 a bag) of chocolate chips with 2 tbsp shortening. I usually do this by placing a glass bowl over a small pot of simmering water. Microwave works too.
-Dip each ball into the chocolate and set on sheet to cool. Check out the picture. You don't want to totally submerge the pb balls - you want them to look like buckeyes, which are actually a kind of nut. I use a toothpick to do this and smooth over the little hole with my finger. Better yet, get your kids to help out on this part - and stifle all urges to make inappropriate jokes.
-Store in refrigerator or freezer.

Boozy Rum Balls 
-In a food processor finely chop 1 cup walnuts and 1/2 cup dried, unsweetened coconut. Pour in to mixing bowl.
-Finely chop 1 package worth of chocolate wafers in food processor. I use Nabisco's wafers. Transfer to mixing bowl with nut mix. Note: If you can't find chocolate wafers, you can use about 2 cups of vanilla wafer crumbs plus 2 tbsp cocoa powder.
-Add about 1 cup confectioners sugar,  1/2 tsp allspice, a dash of nutmeg, 2 tbsp light corn syrup and 1/2 cup rum - dark or light or whatever is languishing in your liquor cabinet from last summer's cocktails.
-Mix until combined. It should be very moist.
-Chill bowl for 30 minutes in the fridge and when mixture has firmed up, roll out 1 inch balls.
-Pour out about another 1/2 cup confectioners sugar in a small bowl. Roll each ball in sugar. Set on cookie sheet to rest - store in fridge or freezer until ready to serve. They get better over time.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gifts for Kids

When I am shopping for kid gifts, I will admit that I often feel overwhelmed. Must be that robust marketing machine that keeps me from being able to think of anything beyond what I see in Target, Costco or One Step Ahead. But every so often I find the energy to think outside of the Toys R Us box.

If you, too, are in need of inspiration, check out You Know, for Kids. It's a wonderful blog written by Myles McDonnell a magazine editor in New York who reviews music, movies, books and toys for kids. He has, in my humble opinion, impeccable taste. He has knack for finding things that might not be in the big box store, but are worth the internet search or trip to that smaller toy store in your town. For example, I discovered on his site that the New York Review of Books publishes previously out of print children's literature under their own imprint they call their Children's Collection. A recent title: Mud Pies and Other Recipes. How cute is that? Around Halloween, he wrote up a list of great spooky books and movies that got his five year old son's seal of approval. Perhaps a holiday list is on the way. I hope so because I need guys like McDonnell to turn down the din of  the Star Wars, Disney and Pretty Ponies marketing madness.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chili Dinner

Saturday night we hosted a bunch of friends for a casual holiday get together. Dave made his signature chili and we served it up with rice, corn bread, beer bread, mac and cheese (ostensibly for the kids), and a lot of delicious baked goods. It's critical to accompany any holiday meal with three or more carbs, don't you think?

Dave is busy working on some holiday shopping duties, so I will try my best to impart his chili recipe. This makes a big pot of chili - don't be intimidated by the huge quantity, it gets better as it ages and it freezes really well.

Dave's Chili
-Chop 3 medium onions, 3 bell peppers, 4-5 cloves of garlic. Add to a large pot with olive oil. As the vegetable sweat, finely chop some variety of hot pepper and add it to the mix. Our brother in law, Frank, gave Dave 2 habanero peppers from his plant, so he used these this time. Be careful with the peppers - you can always add more, but it is pretty hard to make chili less spicy once you have it flaming hot. You can regulate the spice of the pepper by removing some of the seeds and pith.
-Add canned/frozen diced tomatoes. This time Dave used 4 quart bags from our freezer that had about 2 1/2 cups in each bag. 
-Brown 2 lbs of meat, ground turkey or beef, in a separate pan and pour off the fat when it is cooked through. Add it to the pot.
-Add beans, about 3 cans or 6 cups frozen bagged beans like we had this time. Dave uses black beans. We have also used white beans, red beans and various combinations.
-Add a bag of frozen corn.
-Add a bottle of beer. Dave uses something with robust flavor like a good amber ale or maybe a porter.
-Cook it all up and if it seems too thin, add some tomato sauce. Add your spices - chili powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper.
-Dave usually lets it cook on the low heat for about an hour. He also recommends preparing this the day before you want to serve it as the flavors "mature" over time.

We usually have chili over rice and/or cornbread.  Valerie brought homemade tortilla chips that were so delicious and made an excellent accompaniment as well. (I hope she blogs about those chips soon...hint hint.) Tonight, I am using the rest of the chips and serving chili nachos for dinner.

Thanks to everyone who came over to celebrate the holidays with our family. We had a blast!

PW Holiday Giveaway

One of the benefits of becoming a really successful blogger, like seriously successful, is that you get to have  giveaways. I mention the Pioneer Woman site a lot, I know. I am a little obsessed. What can I say? It's incredibly well organized, utilizes gorgeous photos taken by Ree Drummond, the blogger in question, and serves as a wonderful resource for delicious, down home cooking. The PW is a a blogging phenomenon of sorts. She manages to maintain her amazing blog and also appear on tv, write cookbooks and contribute to a variety of magazines. Her blog should come with the disclaimer: "Results are not typical."

Because of her success, she is very generous with her giveaways. She has given out Kitchen Aid standing mixers, Nikon D90 cameras, fancy knife sets, full sets of Fiesta Ware dishes, not to mention unworn items from her wardrobe.

So this month she is hosting a giveaway sponsored by HP. (The other giveaways are items purchased by Ree herself.) Winners will take home a PhotoSmart printer. Very cool stuff. Check out the page and enter. Full disclosure, mentioning the giveaway in a blog post is one method of entering the contest. Even if it wasn't giving me a minuscule chance of winning, I would gladly promo Ree's site and her generosity. So if you haven't already, take a look at her blog.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Christmas Past

Writing about those ornaments last night made me more nostalgic than usual at this time of year, so I have been looking through our Christmas pictures from the past five years. There is nothing like a retrospective of your children on film to really bring home the cliche that "time flies."

Here is Kara last year. She was helping Dave put Christmas lights in our tree just outside our front door.

This is 2008. So proud of her fancy Christmas dress.

2007 at Dave's parents house. That yellow monkey, shockingly, is still around. He is affectionately know as Cheesy Monkey.

This was 2006. She is playing peek a boo with "pillow guy" - the 18 month old's favorite game.

2005. Kara's first Christmas. She is not quite 7 months old and loving the new feeling of sitting up all by herself.

I need a tissue.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


One of the best parts of Christmas, I think, is getting to see the ornaments we have collected over the years. And the most precious to me these days are the ones that Kara has made over the years. This button and glitter covered tree was from the year she was in the threes class in preschool. One of my best parenting decisions was to write the dates on the back of her ornaments. When I turn this tree around and see 2008 written on the back, I can't help but remember what my little bunny was like two years ago. So sweet, and earnest and a little nervous about the baby in mommy's belly as she called her brother in utero.

 It's hard to tell, but this one says 2007 on the back. She was two. I think that making this ornament entailed the kids gluing the wing on the dove and stringing the ribbon through the hole. I remember coming in to her classroom and how excited she was to show me all of the things she liked to play with.

This one was from last year. I love the way she colored in the clothespin legs. I love that the googly eye has fallen off. I love the sweet red ribbon.

This one is from this year. She didn't make it. She bought it for me. Kara's elementary school hosts a fundraiser where kids can shop in a holiday store run by Ten Thousand Villages, a store that sells fair trade crafts. I dutifully gave her five bucks to spend in the store and help fund the whatever the PTA has planned next. I absolutely expected her to buy a trinket for herself. As it turned out, her class went to the shop a couple of days after my birthday, and Kara decided that I needed another present. It just about broke my heart with happiness when she excitedly showed me the ornament she bought all by herself, just for my mommy. The ornament is lovely, but the spirit of generosity that it symbolizes is the best gift ever.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Frolicking Food

No one is more into Christmas than Dave's father. We actually call him Captain Christmas...to his face. Dave's family, and our family now, like to partake in the holiday "frolic." No we don't dress up like elves or anything, but during the month of December, we look for ample opportunities to hang out together. Frolicking for us is synonymous with the pleasure of being together as a family - no real agenda is necessary. The main requirements to for frolicking are family, cocktails, and food. Lots of food - particularly appetizers and desserts.
Captain Christmas and Jamie high fiving after an awesome tree trimming.

Last weekend, we hosted the clan at our house to trim our tree and generally frolic together. The dinner I "served" was basically just assorted cold cuts, rolls and salads. Nothing special. But I knew that people would fill up on the "pigs in a blanket" (also known as "cocktail franks in puff pastry") and spanikopita that I purchased at Costco. If you have not tried either of these holiday hor d'oeuvres, you really should. And if you are tempted to look down on a dressed up hot dog, I strongly encourage you to rethink your position. Sure, hot dogs are mass produced and of questionable nutritional merit, but they taste really good. And hot out of the oven wrapped in buttery pastry, they are even better. Spanikopita, a Greek pastry, are marginally less bad for you - they contain a vegetable at least - and taste equally amazing. (If you are hosting a vegetarian at your holiday gathering, spanikopita are great as they can pretty much be a meal in and of themselves.) Basically you take phyllo dough, coat it in butter and wrap it around a mix of spinach and feta cheese. You could make these from scratch. (My mom and I have done it on many occasions.). But you could also buy them frozen. I recommend the latter.

Since the meal I was serving was pretty much pre-fab, I felt the need to actually cook something. A perfect opportunity to try out a cookie recipe that caught my eye. Pioneer Woman posted this recipe for "Cleta Bailey's Toffee Squares" and it looked delicious. But contrary to the title, it didn't seem very toffee-ish. The general idea is to make a cookie dough without any levening agent (ie baking soda) and then cover it with melted chocolate and chopped nuts. I am not a big fan of nuts in my cookies, and I also wanted to up the toffee taste. So I made her recipe but covered the chocolate in Heath "Bits o' Brickle." Yep, I found pre-chopped Heath bar in the grocery store. They rock.

These bars are wonderful. They are so easy to make, freeze well, are good for kids to help with, and look lovely. I think I will try them with white chocolate on top, and maybe chopped dried cranberries?

PS: Sorry about the poor photo quality on the family pics. Our living room has about the worst light ever in the winter.

J playing peek a boo with his great grandfather.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Apple Crumble Perfect Pie

A very good family friend turned 60 this weekend, and his wife, Carol, threw him a surprise party. I was honored when Carol asked me to bake an apple pie for her hubby's big night. First of all, Carol is a great cook. And second, she has only heard of this pie from my mom, so she is putting a lot of trust in me and my pie prowess.

Even though my Thanksgiving apple pie was not all that good, I feel supremely confident about the apple crumble pie I am making for the party. It never fails to be perfect. It is just the right amount of sweet, crumbly and goes perfectly with vanilla ice cream. A great addition to holiday or birthday festivities.

The original recipe for this pie was from Bon Appetit. I have made just a few changes.

-Make a pie crust or use a pre-made one. I like Pillsbury's crust.
-Preheat oven to 400
-For the filling: peel, core and slice 1/4 inch thick about 3 lbs of granny smith apples
-Combine apples with 1/2 to 2/3 cup sugar depending on your tastes, 2 tbsp flour, 2 tsp cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg, ginger and allspice, 2 tbsp melted butter. Set aside.
-For topping: Combine in a food processor: 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 cup oats, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, 6 tbsp unsalted butter chilled and cubed. Pulse until mixture is combined in to moist meal. (You could do this with a pastry cutter too.)
-Mold crust in to a pie pan. I recommend using a deep dish pan if you have it.
-Pour apples into crust. It will seem like you have way too much apple mix. It will be a big mound of apples. Just go with it.
-Pour topping on to apples and use your hands to squish the topping all over the apples. Again, it will seem like the pile of apples is too big and that the topping will never stick. Trust me - it will all work out.
-Put pie on a baking sheet. Bake at 400 for about 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 and bake until it looks browned and bubbly, about 45 min to 1 hour more. If it looks like the topping is getting too dark, just cover with foil.
-You can easily make this a day ahead and reheat it before serving.

Here it is. I gave it a little dusting of confectioners sugar since it is for a party and all.

Happy 60th, Mike! And thanks, Carol, for letting me contribute this yummy dish to your party.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Beer Bread

It's cold here. Really cold. Winter cold. Perfect weather for making soup, goulash, or, Dave's specialty, chili. And if you are going to serve a pot of spicy, hot deliciousness, I believe you need fresh bread to go along with the meal. How else will you mop up the juice at the bottom of the bowl?

You can, obviously, buy great bread. (I recommend the artisan breads at Trader Joe's and Costco makes really yummy Italian loafs, both whole grain and traditional white.) But with minimal effort, you can make your own bread. I will admit to often feeling intimidated by the prospect of baking bread - which is why I now have a bread machine. But I am quite brave when it comes to making quick breads. Quick breads don't require yeast; they use baking powder/soda for leavening. Quick breads are easy to make, easy to adapt and, yes, they are quick. You can have the whole thing done in under an hour, baking time included.

There are lots of quick bread recipes out there, but my favorite variety for serving with winter stews and soups is beer bread. Here is a basic recipe:

  • Preheat oven to 375
  • Sift into a bowl: 3 cups flour (white/wheat or a combo), 3 tsp baking powder, 3 tbsp sugar, 1 tsp salt
  • Add 12 oz of beer at room temperature and stir gently until just combined. (Get your kids to help with this part - lots of bubbles = fun times in the kitchen.)
  • Pour into a greased loaf pan and cover with 2 tbsp melted butter. (Don't wimp out and skip the butter!)
  • Bake 35-40 minutes. 
You can do all kinds of things to customize this recipe. Add some spices, shredded cheese, jalapeno peppers, bacon, honey or molasses in place of some or all of the sugar. Try different beers. We like Dogfish's Raison D'etre, any pumpkin beer, Magic Hat's #9 and pretty much anything by Victory.

And if you are looking for a cute, cheap and creative holiday gift, combine the dry ingredients in a ziploc bag or mason jar, put the bag/jar in a gift bag with a bottle of beer and a card with the cooking instructions.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"It's Not Chaotic. It's rich."

My bestest friend Ellie sent me an awesome birthday present, Time for Dinner. This is a fabulous cookbook by the former editors of the now defunct (boohoo!) Cookie magazine. Jenny Rosenstrach, one of the authors, is the writer of Dinner a Love Story, one of my favorite foodie/mommy blogs. Beyond providing a ton of great recipes, Time for Dinner is clearly written by women who have actually cooked dinner recently. That is, they know what it's like to work all day and then try to prepare a meal while your kids are melting down, the dog is barking and you just realized that you have no viable ingredients for dinner anyway. With this in mind, they give you lots of good strategies. For example: how to stretch one Sunday dinner into several weeknight meals; how to stock your kitchen so as to maximize the chances of cooking a respectable dinner on any given night; how to get ahead of the game by preparing a cooking staple (beans, marinara etc.) during the weekend.

In addition to the great cooking tips and techniques, these women are just cool. Like you would want to chat with them at the soccer game or, better yet, meet up for drinks and talk about food, family, friends, all the good stuff. One of my favorite lines from the very witty and wise text comes when the authors are talking about the new "normal" that we have to get used to as parents who want to actually cook and eat with our kids. Their mantra: "Repeat after us: It's not chaotic. It's rich." I love it. I am going to have those sentences engraved above my kitchen sink.

And when I have a moment like I did yesterday when both kids were crying because they were hungry and grumpy, and I had left the newly purchased snacks in the car because when I got back from Target it was pouring rain, and I had to leave both of my children literally lying on the floor of the living room wailing while I fetched the much needed snack, I will think of these wise words. The next time I think I am going to have my own special mommy meltdown, I am going to intone this mantra, take deep breadths and know that the chaos is merely evidence of just how rich our lives can be.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Turkey Pies

One of my favorite post-holiday pastimes is figuring out what to do with the leftovers. I know I am the coolest woman alive. Seriously, though, when you spend a ton of time cooking a great meal, the last thing you want to do is watch it all rot in the refrigerator. In the spirit of cool people who love leftover cooking, I thought I would share some ideas this week.

The most obvious, but certainly one of the best uses for Thanksgiving leftovers: The Thanksgiving sandwich. Turkey, mayo, stuffing, lettuce and cranberry sauce. I like Swiss cheese on it too. A sandwich that uses another bread product as a filling - what could be more emblematic of the indulgences of the holidays?

I also love to make turkey pot pie in the week after Thanksgiving. Here is a really easy recipe that will yield great results. If you have a lot of turkey, I would recommend doubling the recipe and freezing a pie for later. You will be glad you have it on some cold winter night when you really don't feel like cooking.

-In a large sauce pan, melt a couple of tablespoons of butter and/or olive oil.
-Add to the pot one small onion chopped, about 1/2 cup chopped mushrooms, and 1 medium potato peeled and cubed.
-After they have cooked down a bit add 2 cups of frozen mixed vegetables. I usually use the peas/carrots/corn/beans mix, but any variety will work. If you don't have frozen veggies on hand you can, of course, use fresh vegetables. I really like peas and carrots in my pot pie. The corn gives it a nice sweetness, too. But you should use whatever you have and you like.
-When the vegetables have cooked enough for everything to get warm again, add 2 tbsp of flour. Stir the flour in to coat all of the veggies.
-Add about 2 cups of milk. I often use some half and half as well. (Because after eating a bazillion calories a day last weekend, I don't want to come back to reality all at once.)
-Stir it all up. The milk should thicken up as it heats up. If you think it is getting too thick, just add more milk or some chicken stock.
-Pour the filling into a pie dish and top with a pie crust, home made or store bought. Bake at 375 for about 40 minutes or until the crust is browned.

When I was making my pie yesterday, I was hit with a moment of inspiration. What if I topped the pie with mashed potatoes instead of a crust? It would be like turkey shepherds pie. But it would need another name since shepherds herd sheep or cattle, not turkeys. Hmmm...What is the poultry equivalent of a shepherd? Farmer, I guess.

So here is what a mini Farmer's pie looks like. I just used the turkey pot pie filling, put a cup or so in a ramekin,  topped with leftover mashed potatoes and browned it under the broiler for a few minutes. Oh my, it was so good. Give these pies a shot. You wont be disappointed.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving Replay

Even though we  have made the full transition to Christmas time in our house, I thought I would take a few moments to look back at Thanksgiving. Here is the completely, outrageously huge turkey. Sure, 18lbs for 6 people is a little overboard, but that's what Thanksgiving is all about. (Writing this reminds me that I have a huge turkey carcass in my refrigerator that needs to be made in to turkey stock. Yikes.) The bird was delicious. I pretty much followed Tom Collichio's Herb Butter Turkey recipe that I saw on Epicurious. The basic idea is to slather the turkey with herb butter, baste with stock and add butter to the pan as the turkey cooks. The best idea in this recipe was to reserve about 2 tbsp of the herb butter to add to the gravy makings. This was by far the best gravy I have ever made and I credit it all to the copious amounts of butter.

Dave's dinner plate. Note the precise organization.
The other greatest hit of our meal was the sweet potatoes. For years, I have been trying to recreate the sweet potatoes my stepmother made. Her dish was like a sweet potato souffle, but not super fluffy. The best part was the brown sugar crumble that topped her sweet taters. After reading a ton of recipes, I basically decided to wing it. I cooked up about 4 lbs of sweet potatoes the night before. Thanksgiving morning, I mashed the potatoes up with 2 beaten eggs, 1/4 cup butter, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 cup soy milk (we had a dairy allergic guest at our dinner) and spiced it up with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. I made a struesel topping using 1/2 cup flour, 1 cup brown sugar, 1 cup chopped pecans and 1/2 cup butter. (This is pretty much from Pioneer Woman's sweet potato recipe.) This made way too much streusel, but it was really delicious. I just topped off the mashed potatoes, baked them at 375 for about 30 minutes while the turkey was resting. They were great.

These are what my skillet rolls looked like. Almost as pretty as PW's.
In addition to the turkey and sweet potatoes, we had green beans, regular mashed potatoes, confetti Brussels sprouts (a recipe from Dinner a Love Story), skillet rolls, and of course assorted sauces and gravies. It was quite a feast.

 The highpoint of the meal, though, was certainly dessert. Dave made a fabulous pumpkin pie from a Paula Deen recipe. And I made a pretty mediocre apple pie from a Mario Battali recipe I found in New York Magazine. Dave's pie was so delicious and was eaten amidst endless laughter as Jamie yelled, "pumpone pie!" That's toddler for, "Give me pumpkin pie!" It might be the cutest thing ever. And, yes, we spent the rest of the weekend asking Jamie, "Do you like pie?" To which he obligingly shouted, "Pumpone pie!"

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Beer Recommendations

As the next in my series of beer related guest posts, I will be giving a couple of beer recommendations for the Thanksgiving holiday.  I am going to focus on a couple of styles, so that we can have something for everyone. The first typical autumn beer you would probably think of is an Oktoberfest beer.  Not at all my favorite style as I find them kind of bland.  There is a much more interesting seasonal stuff out there.  I really like beer that is brewed with hops that have been freshly harvested and immediately used.  This beers are referred to as “wet hop," “fresh hop” or “harvest” beers.  These tend to have a very crisp, fresh taste that showcases the particular hop being used.  Since it is logistically more difficult to use fresh hops in a beer, these beers are much less common.  (Most hops are frozen or processed right after they are picked, so getting a load of hops from the field to the brewery before they go bad is not easy.)  While these beers will typically showcase the hop, that does not mean that they are super bitter or hoppy tasting.  
Sierra Nevada Estate

A couple of fresh hop beers that I have tried this year include the Sierra Nevada Estate Homegrown Ale and Great Divide Fresh Hop Pale Ale.  Both were excellent, but I have to give a slight nod to the Sierra Nevada.  I would like to note that Sierra Nevada has really stepped up their game in the last two years and is really producing some excellent stuff these days.

Yes I have that glass.

I am going to make two other recommendations just because these are beers that I love, and I think they are great beers for an autumn holiday occasion.  First up, Schneider Aventinus, one of my favorite beers of all time.  This is a weizenbock style which basically means a dark German wheat beer, on steroids.  It is a full bodied beer, with an alcohol range of about 8%. So, don’t drink a six pack of them.

And the last is from a local brewery called Victory.  The beer is called Yakima Glory.  This is another high alcohol content beer, clocking in at 8.7%.  This beer has very strong malt flavors balanced out by an intense hop profile.  This was a new seasonal offering from Victory last year, and one of the best new beers I have had in years.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Favorite: Gourmet Magazine's Test Kitchen

Last year my good friend Valerie hooked me up with some locally raised chickens from a farmer in Lancaster County. Sadly, these birds languished in my freezer for quite a while since I had just had baby #2 and was not big into cooking. This summer, I came across one of these chickens in the big freezer and a dinner idea was hatched. We would have bbq chicken on the grill. The only problem - these chickens were not cut up. But I am resourceful girl, I thought. I was sure that with the help of the internet, I could carve up a whole chicken into grilling appropriate pieces.

So I typed "How to cut up a whole chicken" into the Google search box and found several helpful sites. (In retrospect, I am glad that I didn't stumble upon anything too graphic.) The most helpful hits were actually YouTube videos of people demonstrating this culinary skill. This chicken experiment really redeemed YouTube in my view.  Up to this point, my primary experience with YouTube was showing Kara random Disney or Sesame Street songs. Aside from entertaining my kids, I suspected that YouTube was of questionable utility to a stay at home mom.

The best site, by far, was from the now defunct (so sad) Gourmet Magazine website. On the video section of the site they have a sub-section called "The Test Kitchen". Embedded here are quick instructional videos on a wide range of kitchen topics: from how to cut up a whole chicken, to how to warm tortillas, to how to crack a coconut, to how to sharpen a knife. I am telling you this has some great stuff.  I have never even heard of corn silk tea, but after seeing the video, I kind of want to give it a try.

So this week, as you are considering making gravy, pie crust or carving up a turkey, check out Gourmet's very informative site.

Here is a link to "How to Get a Moist Turkey."

Monday, November 22, 2010

It's Carbtacular!

If there is one thing that I particularly love about the Thanksgiving feast, it's the complete overindulgence in all that is carby. When else would we think it is necessary to serve at least two kinds of potatoes? What other meal demands that one serve butter rolls to go with all the other buttery concoctions? As Dave likes to say, "It's carbtacular!"

Make this recipe - Your rolls will actually look like this. Promise.
This year, I found the most delicious recipe for dinner rolls. This is a version of the Pioneer Woman's Buttered Rosemary Rolls. But instead of using frozen dinner rolls from a store, I make dinner roll dough in the bread machine. Here is dinner roll recipe that I use from Tasty Kitchen contributor, Sprucehill. You can find a step by step and pictures of the recipe on her very cool blog.

These rolls are great no matter how you cook them. But I highly recommend busting out your cast iron skillet if you have one. (If you don't have one, ask Santa, or other gift-giving entities, to hook you up ASAP. It is an inexpensive and invaluable kitchen tool.) Check out Pioneer Woman's steps, but the basic idea is:
-Make or purchase dinner roll dough
-Place balls of dough in a cast iron skillet that is generously coated in butter. I use seven balls, like in the picture from the PW site.
-Cover and let rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes. Brush with more melted butter and sprinkle on spices to suit your tastes. I think they are especially good with a little Parmesan grated on top.
-Bake at 375 or 400, depending on your oven, for 15-20 minutes

These are so soft and delicious. Not to mention that they look beautiful - a great addition to your holiday feast. Because you can never have too many carbs.

Pre-Thanksgiving Clean Out

This will never do.
So this is what the inside of my refrigerator looks like today. This is a problem. I am about to cook a Thanksgiving dinner and then store leftovers, of which there will be tons.

So, I have proclaimed the next three days, clean out our fridge days. That's right, it's all leftovers all the time until Thursday. Then we'll start another parade of leftovers on Friday. Possibly Thursday night.

Here's my tentative plan:
Tonight - Quesadillas with the beans, steak from last night, and sauteed veggies from Saturdays calzone dinner with Josh, shredded cheese that is taking up way too much room..
Tuesday - Stir fry with broccoli from Sunday dinner, peppers, snap peas.
Wednesday - Pasta with whatever vegetables linger, 1/2 container of ricotta and meatballs.

In addition, I have charged Dave with eating the remaining tuna and egg salad from the weekend for lunch this week. Jamie and I did our part and finished up the eggplant casserole and penne for lunch today.

I think it can be done. Wish me luck!

PS: Coming soon, Dave will post about some beer recommendations for Thanksgiving. He is still "researching."