Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy Noodle Year!

My lovely, long, peaceful (mostly) winter break is almost over, but I still have a few treats up my sleeve.

I had one last movie in my pile to be watched, and I knew it required a special meal to go with it. I'd been told by a good friend a number of years ago that "Eat Drink Man Woman" was well worth watching, but only on a stomach full of good Chinese food.

Well, on New Year's Eve, my favorite Chinese place in town was closed, so I was left to fend for myself. Happily, I still had some bok choy in the refrigerator, as well as a can of water chestnuts and a can of coconut milk, so I was able to whip up a pot of Bangkok noodles.

I know, that's hardly a Chinese dish. But considering that what I saw prepared on screen was worthy of a top notch dim sum restaurant, nothing I made would begin to compete. So why not branch out in the region?

Sweetened slightly by the coconut milk but made savory by the garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and curry powder, this quick dish makes an exotic sort of comfort food, but comfort food indeed it is.

After that (and a handful of buckeyes for dessert), I felt no need to stay up until midnight or even to toast the New Year at the same time as the Europeans. I've had my little pseudo-Chinese New Year, and that's good enough for me.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Deck the Rolls

In my youth, my Wonderful Parents and I had certain specific Christmas traditions: when and how to decorate the tree, who got to arrange the crèche (that would be me, thank you), in what order presents were unwrapped (cards off the tree, stockings, then presents under the tree).

But no tradition was taken more seriously than Christmas breakfast. Some years we had homemade tea rings from my aunt (the one not renowned for her baking, save for this), some years we had a giant bread, egg, and cheese casserole. But it was always understood that no presents were to be opened until we had eaten a good breakfast.

After fifteen years out on my own, I've had to modify some of those traditions to suit my own lifestyle. And while the few presents I've received have already been opened in advance of the holiday, one thing remains constant: a special breakfast.

It's no secret that I love breakfast foods, especially the fancier sweet and bready dishes like coffee cake or cinnamon rolls. It usually requires a weekend for me to indulge in making anything out of the ordinary... or perhaps a long holiday break.

In considering the possibilities this year, I kept coming back to the idea of pecan rolls, loaded with butter and spice and nuts. But I also kept wondering what those pecan rolls might taste like if I exchanged some of the milk in the recipe for eggnog.

Sounds too decadent, too lush, too rich, even for Christmas morning, you say? Bah humbug! Once I get a baking notion in my head, I have to try it out, no matter what.

So yesterday afternoon, I pulled out the necessary ingredients and got to work. Using the eggnog allowed me to cut back the eggs in the recipe from three to one, and I decreased the sugar as well, so it wasn't quite as rich as you might expect. I also added nutmeg to the dough and to the filling, just to enhance that traditional eggnog flavor.

Instead of melting the butter, pouring it over the rolled out dough, and sprinkling a sugar and spice nut mixture on top, I creamed the butter with the sugar and smeared it on the dough before adding the spiced nuts. It seems to make less of a mess, and I think it actually covers the dough more evenly. Whatever the case may be, it worked well, and the dough cut smoothly into rolls.

I decided to distribute the rolls into two pans and to freeze one pan for eating later. After all, if I'm going to have a rich breakfast, I'd better spread it out as much as possible! The rest I wrapped up and popped into the refrigerator for this morning.

After a brisk walk (my new tradition) and a shower, I slid the pan of rolls into the oven, and while they baked, I squeezed some fresh orange juice (courtesy of My Wonderful Parents) and brewed a cup of good coffee. And when the timer chimed, breakfast was served.

Warm, tender, buttery, spicy, crunchy… everything I could possibly want in a breakfast roll. The eggnog flavor definitely added a rich feeling to the rolls, and it's not something I would want all the time, but for a Christmas treat, it was perfect.

Why mess with tradition? Except to improve it, of course...

Eggnog Pecan Rolls

On Christmas morning, I look forward to having a little something of my own after a month-long baking spree dedicated to other people. This year, while sipping my favorite local eggnog, I got to wondering what cinnamon rolls or pecan rolls would taste like with eggnog incorporated into the dough. I've taken the recipes for Norwegian Coffee Cake and Pecan Rolls from the Tassajara Bread Book and modified them extensively to make use of my favorite local ingredients and to create a tender, buttery, but wholesome roll that will satisfy every child, from 1 to 92, on Christmas morning. (Save one for Santa, too!)

3/4 c eggnog
1/2 c milk
2 T active dry yeast
1 c whole wheat flour
1/2 c unbleached flour
1/2 c maple sugar
1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 c whole wheat flour
2 to 2 1/2 c unbleached flour, as needed

1/4 c unsalted butter, softened
1/4 c maple sugar
1/4 c honey
1 c chopped pecans
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

Heat eggnog and milk together in pan over low heat just until lukewarm. Place yeast in large mixing bowl, and add eggnog and milk, allowing yeast to dissolve. Stir in 1 c whole wheat flour, 1/2 c unbleached flour, and 2 T maple sugar, mixing well. Set aside to rise, 15 to 30 minutes.

In a medium-sized bowl, cream butter. Add remaining maple sugar and cream until well mixed and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and beat until well incorporated. Add butter mixture to yeast sponge along with salt, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Mix well. Add 1 c whole wheat flour and mix until blended. Add remaining unbleached flour as necessary to form a soft but still slightly sticky dough.

Turn dough onto well-floured counter and knead in enough remaining dough until dough becomes smooth and elastic, about 7 minutes. Cover and allow to rise for 1 hour.

For filling, cream together butter, maple sugar, and honey. In a small bowl, combine pecans and spices. Set aside.

When dough has risen, roll it out to a rectangle approximately 1/4" thick. Spread butter mixture over the dough and sprinkle spiced nuts on top. Starting at one edge, roll up the dough fairly tight. Cut the roll into sections about 1/2" to 3/4" thick. Place the sections on a greased baking sheet or in a greased pan. Let rise about 20 minutes (or refrigerate overnight and allow to come to room temperature the next morning).

Bake at 375 F for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Less Scones and Carols

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the flat,
The smells of home cooking flew this way and that,

For if I intended to sing all night long,
I needed good cooking to keep muscles strong.

So after a hearty and comforting lunch,
I pulled out a recipe I like quite a bunch:

Chick pea minestrone, a soup full of all
Of the veggies I found at the market this fall.

An onion, some garlic, some tender green beans,
A jar of tomatoes like summer's past dreams,

A couple of carrots, a quart of fresh stock
All simmered together in an old beat-up pot.

The soup's lush aroma soon filled the air,
And I considered the rest of my dinner with care.

I've wanted to try a new scone variety
With the flavor of pesto imbued with sobriety,

Laced with fresh basil and some shredded cheese
Plus a handful of walnuts (local, if you please).

The dough mixed up quickly and baked quickly, too,
Which left me with only the cleanup to do.

With soup and a feather-light scone on my plate,
I savored a simple Christmas dinner date.

The flavors, perfection! The substance, divine!
I cleaned my plate once, and then one more time,

Before tucking all the leftovers away
To enjoy once again some other day.

My taste buds were satisfied, my tummy quite full,
I bypassed the cookies (though they exert such a pull),

Went straight to the cupboard and pulled out some tea
(A far better treat for singing a high key).

Then, refreshed and ready, I went out in the night
To sing lovely carols in the church candlelight

To dream of the joys that Christmas can bring
As we remember the reason behind everything,

And to hope for the day when true earthly peace
Becomes more than wishes and words we just speak.

And so, on this night, I wish you love and good cheer,
A very Merry Christmas, and a joyous New Year!

Pesto Scones

I don't often think about scones as a savory bread, but the new scone mixes in the Baker's Catalogue have intrigued me, and I finally decided to try my own savory scones. I pulled out a recipe for Cheddar-Chive Scones (found, incidentally, on the King Arthur Baking Circle web site) and tweaked it a fair amount to get the pesto flavor I wanted. Due to a pre-Christmas shortage of some ingredients, I did the best I could with what I had... and was thrilled with the excellent results. Though pesto itself combines basil with olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan, I found that walnuts, Asiago cheese, and no garlic suited me just fine in these astonishing, almost biscuit-light scones. Serve with a hearty minestrone or other good Italian soups on a cold winter's day.

1/2 c whole wheat flour
1 c unbleached flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 T chopped fresh basil leaves (or 2 tsp dried)
1/4 c (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 c shredded Parmesan cheese (Romano or Asiago would also work)
1/4 c coarsely chopped walnuts
Up to 1/2 c milk

Preheat oven to 425 F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper.

In mixing bowl, whisk flours, baking powder, salt, and butter. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. Toss in cheese and walnuts, mixing until evenly distributed.

Pour 1/4 c milk into dry mixture, mixing to make a soft dough, adding more milk as required. Finish pulling the dough together by kneading it by hand in the bowl; I find this also helps to work the butter into the dough more fully. Turn dough out onto a very lightly floured surface. Knead a couple of seconds and then pat dough out into an 8" circle (or square or rectangle). Cut into wedges (or squares, or use a cookie cutter for shapes!).

Place scones on prepared baking sheet and bake until tops are just starting to brown, 12-15 minutes. Remove to wire baking rack and allow to cool. Store in airtight container if you don't plan to eat them all up on the spot!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Fabulous Baker Boys

I lied when I said I finished baking cookies for the holiday season. I mean, I had finished baking my cookies, the ones I had intended to give away and deliver to friends this month.

But I also had plans for one last burst of cookie baking, reserved until this weekend before Christmas –- one that I hoped would be the start of a new holiday tradition.

I've talked with the Southern Belle a number of times before about baking cookies with my adorable "nephews" Beaker and Scooter, but it wasn't until this year that we decided we could finally do it. So we made a date for making sugar cookies, watching a couple of short holiday films, and exchanging Christmas presents.

When I arrived at their house late this morning, I was thrilled to discover that the boys were both as excited as I was to spend the day in the kitchen. And surprisingly, given how young they both are still (Beaker is 5 1/2 and Scooter is just shy of 3 years old), they both wanted to participate in the process for a good long time.

The Southern Belle decided we should make a double batch of sugar cookies, so it took us a while to mix the dough, especially with four people and two spoons involved. (Yes, the little ones took turns working the dough!)

Once all the ingredients were added and the dough had become crumbly, the Southern Belle showed her boys how to work the dough by hand to make it stick together better.

After I had my turn at working the dough, I divided it into smaller portions before she rolled it out and the boys helped cut out the shapes.

It took us a good two hours to cut out and bake every last bit of dough, but we finally had several cookie racks and plates full of bells, stars, hearts, Santas, angels, and even cacti and cowboy boots (thanks to the Southwestern heritage of one side of the family).

We took a long breather to enjoy pizza for lunch and one short Christmas film. By the time we returned to the kitchen, the cookies had cooled and were ready for decorating. So with a little frosting, a few food colors, and an injudicious use of sprinkles and colored sugar (thanks to the exuberant artistry of dear Beaker), we covered almost all the cookies in festive style.

At the Southern Belle's urging, I packed up a couple dozen to bring home and enjoy once today's sugar rush wore off. I'm sure she thought it a fair trade for all the cookies and baklava and julekage I brought for them, but just spending that time with the boys, doing something I really love and seeing them enjoy it too, was Christmas gift enough for me.

We've decided that this should be our annual Christmas tradition, and I'm already looking forward to next year's event. (It might even require a new cookie cutter or two.) And those little guys? Given the happy looks on their faces while they helped make the cookies and then as they sneaked warm cookies from the baking racks, I'm sure it's safe to say that they'll be ready to do this again sometime, too.

Until then, though, I'll enjoy this year's cookies -– and memories, too.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Dinner and a Movie

At last, the work week has ended, and thanks to the office being closed over the holidays, I now have a week and a half of leisure ahead of me. I've been looking forward to this all month!

While the next couple of days will still be busy (with a cookie-baking spree with my adorable "nephews" and a full day of singing at church on Sunday), I'm hoping to wind down at home and enjoy doing the things I love to do: cooking and baking, writing, maybe even getting some sewing done.

Wait, you say? That sounds like work? Well, maybe, but it's the kind of work that satisfies me. But I'm not so foolish as to think that after working hard at the office I can jump right into working hard at home. I need my rest, too.

That's why this evening, while the second loaf of julekage rose on the counter, I pulled a small package of breaded eggplant slices from the freezer and made a small dish of eggplant parmigiana for dinner. It seemed a very easy dinner to throw together, even with toasting and buttering a bagel to go with it, and that good food, along with a glass of good wine, made the perfect accompaniment to a good movie.

I've been meaning to watch "Big Night" for some time, and I thought that for the break I should stock up on some food-related movies. This film, starring Stanley Tucci and Tony Shaloub (with delightful roles filled by Minnie Driver and Isabella Rossellini), tells the story of two Italian brothers hoping to find the American Dream in their small restaurant. When it looks like they might have to give it up due to bankruptcy, they pull together for one last, glorious effort: a feast to end all feasts.

What a delight to watch characters get so passionate about good food! And while there's no specific message about local or organic foods (it's set in the 1950s, after all), the conflict between creating and serving good food versus giving the people what they want remains a difficult one today. Besides, how can a food-loving dame like me not love a movie that showcases 1950s fashions, swinging music, and really delectable-looking pasta?

I don't indulge in movies too often, but this film was a feast in every sense, and my humble eggplant parmigiana went well with it. I feel more relaxed now, and maybe even inspired.

Let the holiday break... and the cooking!... begin!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Special Delivery

By the time I finish my holiday baking, I'm usually pretty well off sweets for a while. I love to bake the cookies (and the baklava), but I really only need a few to make me happy.

Besides, didn't you know I'm saving room for other sweet treats?

My Fabulous Aunt, the other frequent baker in the family, has her own sweet traditions come Christmas. Because of her efforts, I find I never have to bake Russian teacakes any more (though they're one of my favorites), and I can usually count on a few sugar cookies (also not on my list to make for myself).

But what I really anticipate every year is her selection of homemade candies. Her soft caramels, buttery and sweet and sometimes loaded with nuts, melt in your mouth (and yes, stick to your dental work, but whatever) and bring a blissful smile to every face. And her buckeyes, those rich fudgy peanut butter orbs coated in glossy semi-sweet chocolate, are the best ever.

So when My Fabulous Aunt called earlier in the week to let me know she had sent out a package to me (at the same time I sent out hers), I knew I could look forward to some sweet little nibbles later in the week. Here's just a sample:

The buckeyes, creamy and decadent as ever, and perfect little teacakes take up the foreground of the photo, and the individually wrapped caramels appear in the far right corner. The pile at the far left is what she called almond roca, and while I don't know what exactly it entails, this new recipe is out of this world. It has a delicate, buttery base (not quite shortbread), chocolate, and sliced almonds, and it packs a sweet but rapturous punch. The note she placed on the container said "You'll have to share these"... but I don't think so!

These candies will keep a long while, especially if I keep them in the refrigerator. Granted, I'll share a few of the caramels and buckeyes, but most of them I will enjoy one at a time, letting the sweetness of the holidays linger well into the winter.

Some of the best things DO come in small packages.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

American Gourmet

The French have a saying: Il faut manger pour vivre et pas vivre pour manger. Translated, it means that one should eat to live and not live to eat.

I've always thought it odd that the French, a nation of food lovers if ever there was one, should have such a saying, really. And given the state of food in America today, between the Food Network and the proliferation of food blogs and cookbooks touting all sorts of ethnic cuisines and attitudes toward food, it's not the sort of proverb that seems particularly relevant.

So how did we get to this point? It's a fairly recent development, this idea of America as a gourmet nation, taking place within the span of just one generation. Compare these experiences:

While in college, studying for a home economics major (believe it or not), the Chef Mother came home on break and wanted to impress her family by cooking a new dish: pizza. She spent what was the equivalent then of a week's grocery budget on the ingredients, and the results, though unappealing (not what we expect from pizza today), had to be forced down so as to avoid wasting food.

While I was in college, I spent a year and a half in an apartment, cooking my own meals. On one memorable occasion, I threw a dinner party in honor of visiting friends and planned a Chinese theme, making wontons, egg rolls, and a number of other delicacies. I also baked my first baklava in college and was immediately hooked. And I made a luscious French dinner, from chicken Provencal to a good wine, for my then boyfriend.

Quite a quantum leap in just under 30 years, wouldn't you say? How did it happen? David Kamp, in his new book The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, offers a wide-ranging and often gossipy and giddy history of our increasing culinary sophistication.

Beginning in the 1950s, three figures loomed large over the American cooking and dining scene. James Beard cooked on television, wrote cookbooks celebrating American regional cuisine and its forebears, and served as a mentor to many budding cooks and cookbook authors. Craig Claiborne, writer for The New York Times (among others), put his literary skills to the service of fine restaurants and a growing awareness of good classic cuisine. And, of course, let us not forget Julia Child, who made French cooking accessible to many more Americans and opened our eyes to the joy of cooking elaborate and delicious meals.

Since then, the American restaurant scene has broadened: the finest restaurants, no longer exclusively devoted to classic French cuisine, now serve a wide variety of ethnic or themed foods. The chefs themselves have become minor or major celebrities, opening restaurants in multiple locations (think Wolfgang Puck) or gaining a wider audience through television shows and cookbooks (Emeril, anyone?) or raising the consciousness of diners about such issues as local and organic food production (like Alice Waters).

Kamp argues that though there have been setbacks along the way, ultimately all of this attention to food and the experimentation by so many people has led to positive changes in what and how we eat: is one area of American life where things just continue to improve. If we're cooking at home, we have a greater breadth and higher quality of ingredients available to us. If we're dining out, we have more options open to us, and a greater likelihood than ever that we'll get a good meal, no matter what the price paid. (p.xi)

You might, with some justification, argue that we as a nation have become obsessed with food, whether in drooling over the latest taste sensation or in fretting over a new diet plan. Many people who can afford a large, beautifully appointed kitchen might prefer to turn over all their cooking to someone else, while other people barely have the money to buy fresh vegetables or a healthy meal. Don't we have our priorities screwed up? you might say.

Yes, in some ways, we do. But look at it this way. So many of these celebrity chefs and food writers have encouraged us to pay more attention to how we nourish ourselves, to where our food originates and to how it affects us. It's possible to learn a great deal about cooking, about other ethnic cuisines, and about food politics... and then adapt all that knowledge to a healthy way of cooking and/or eating. We have choices, and while they can be incredibly overwhelming, I think we are finding that our choices are getting better and better.

So if you enjoy reading about food or thinking about food, you might want to pick up this book at your local library and thumb through it. There's a lot to learn about how so many of the ingredients and dishes we now take for granted (salsa, anyone?) entered our national culinary consciousness, and there are lots of fun stories about the personalities involved in bringing about this change.

And within reason, I think it's OK to live to eat, if it helps us be more mindful about what we eat.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Crumby Christmas Gift

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to visit My Opera-Loving Friends in Norway during their sabbatical from the college. I arrived shortly after the Norwegian national holiday on May 17, just in time for the ever-lengthening days and the brilliantly hued and astonishingly fragrant lilacs.

My friends, knowing my vegetarian ways, spent their leave year visiting several ethnic restaurants in Oslo, looking for places where they could take me to dinner and know that I could eat well. (Believe me, this was not a hardship for them; like me, they enjoy traveling on their stomachs.) In my two weeks with them, I sampled Italian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and even Ethiopian food –- as well as classic Norwegian fare –- at a number of good restaurants.

That was only for dinner, though. Since we usually traveled during the days, we often had a picnic lunch of wholesome bread, good cheese, fresh fruit, cookies, and plenty of water. Though it may sound boring, eating those same things day in and day out, the scenery in which we lunched more than made up for it. (Imagine a mountaintop picnic, watching reindeer cross the snowy incline below us.)

For breakfast, we had a regular routine as well: muesli with milk or soy milk, bananas, tea, and slices of toasted julekage, the Norwegian Christmas bread studded with raisins and laced with cardamom. Like my one friend, I found that such a delicious bread shouldn't be reserved only for Christmas, and when I returned home, I looked for a recipe.

Happily, I found a recipe for julekage in the Betty Crocker International Cookbook, though when I followed it as written, I was duly informed that, while tasty, it did not adhere strictly to the version they had enjoyed in Oslo. With a little tinkering, though, I managed to come up with something that made everyone happy.

Since then, julekage has become a holiday tradition for us. I bake a generous loaf for them and another loaf for my friends the Absent-Minded Professor and the Southern Belle, and sometimes I'll even bake a loaf for myself so that I have an excuse for making really good cinnamon toast.

So once the cookie baking is gone and all the baklava is packed up and delivered, it's time to bake julekage.

I'll be visiting with My Opera-Loving Friends and their family early this year, so I needed to take the time this evening to whip up a loaf. (I'm glad it doesn't take long!) And in another day or two, I'll do it all over again for my other friends and their bread-devouring family. They'll get to enjoy the tender, enriched crumb, toasted and possibly slathered with butter and maybe even cinnamon sugar, and before you know it, Christmas and the julekage will be but a memory.

But what a crumby memory!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Orange You Glad It's Christmas?

Amid the rush of the shoppers trolling the stores for gifts and the constant bombardment of advertisements, I look for a quieter way to move through December.

Sure, my oven has been cranked up to full steam pretty regularly in order to work through two rounds of holiday baking, but I've parceled out the recipes over several nights so as not to be overwhelmed, and I only sent out nine goodie boxes this year.

But even with the hopped-up, sugar-and-caffeine-fueled holiday frenzy going on around me, I can still find moments of peace and delight.

One of those comes from the annual shipment from My Wonderful Parents of fresh citrus from down south. This year, their initial order got screwed up, and I ended up with a box of a dozen sugar navel oranges (hooray!) and about 8 ruby red grapefruit. Since they know I'm not a big fan of grapefruit, they contacted the shippers and arranged to have another dozen oranges (the remainder of the original order) sent shortly thereafter.

So here I am, prepared for the approaching winter weather (I'm waiting... still waiting!) with a serious stash of vitamin C that would make a sailor smile.

One orange has already made the ultimate sacrifice, giving its peel for sunshine cookies and its juice for the second pan of baklava. Others, I'm sure, will be squeezed into my morning juice glass over the holiday break, and I hope to make more candied orange peel again this year.

And, of course, it wouldn't be New Year's in my home without my famous Pie in the Sky.

So you'll excuse me if I draw back from the holiday rush, unwilling to venture out into the crowds. My gift-giving is nearly done, as is my baking, and I'm ready to sit back with my cookies and a glass of freshly-squeezed Florida orange juice. (Santa would be so jealous!)

I'm ready for Christmas. Orange you?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Christmas Cookie Caper

I know, I know, things have been pretty quiet here this week. That doesn't mean I haven't been busy, though. Here are the highlights from round 2 of this year's holiday baking:

Cappuccino Shortbread Truffles: Based on the basic recipe for chocolate charms, these little morsels have espresso powder and cinnamon added. They're hard little cookies, as shortbread goes, but they do have a buttery melt-in-the-mouth finish that makes them a decadent little treat.

Butter Pecan Turtle Bars: I found this recipe at Bake or Break and thought I'd give it a go for something new and different. I have to admit, I wasn't overly impressed because even with following the recipe to the letter, it didn't seem like it would hold together thanks to a crumbly crust, an insufficient amount of sugar syrup, and smudgy chocolate. They firmed up reasonably well, and they taste very good, but they're really on the sweet side for me. I don't think I'll make them again, but they were worth a try.

Sunshine Cookies: One of my new favorites, this original recipe is such a treat to make! I whipped these up on Saturday, using fresh orange peel from the box of oranges my Wonderful Parents sent from Florida, and the whole apartment smelled great! (But as you can see, I had to make lunch early so that I wouldn't devour all the cookies...)

Baklava: That's right, it's the second pan of baklava for the season. I think I ended up using more spiced nuts this time around, a little more butter, and a bit more honey in the syrup, resulting in a very decadent sweet delight. I also used orange juice instead of lemon in the syrup; it didn't make a significant difference, so that's good to know for future substitutions.

And all of these Christmas treats have been divvied up, wrapped up, and packed away in boxes and bags to deliver to more friends this week.

How sweet it is!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pumpkin Up the Volume

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I ran into my dear former choir director at the community carol sing-along downtown, and he invited me to join his choir for the holiday season. Being easily swayed by a kind smile and the prospect of some of my favorite Christmas carols, I agreed.

What that means, however, is that for this month I am requiring a greater expenditure of physical energy on Sunday mornings in order to hike up the hill to his church, rehearse, and sing my heart out. And that means I need a hearty breakfast!

Lucky for me, I found a recipe for a pumpkin coffee cake in Vegetarian Times earlier this fall and decided I had to try it. Since I still had the remaining steamed pumpkin cubes in the refrigerator after my recent muffin experiment, I knew today would be the day.

I was up at my usual insanely early hour, giving myself a good three to four hours before choir rehearsal began. So as I headed into the kitchen and looked over the recipe once more, my mind started thinking of ways to "improve" the recipe (not that I had tried it as written yet!).

First, I had to pull out the good local whole wheat flour, oats, butter, and eggs. Then I decided that I couldn't possibly use cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg without any cloves, and I couldn't leave the streusel unspiced. And then, in one trip to the refrigerator, I spotted a small packet of cream cheese and thought that a thin layer of cream cheese filling (sweetened with local maple syrup) might be just the thing to complete the picture.

So I measured and mixed and mingled all these wonderful flavors and textures into a wholesome-looking and fantastic-smelling layered cake... an amazing transformation that kept my mouth watering!

I sliced a generous wedge and lifted it onto my plate, and, washing it down first with cold local cider and then with a gingersnap-flavored coffee, I tucked into a thoroughly satisfying breakfast that nourished me well for singing a couple of choruses from Handel's "Messiah." (You see why I'm so easily persuaded to sing for this choir director? He always picks the good stuff!)

Of course, I still have well over three quarters of the coffee cake left, so I'll be able to enjoy good breakfasts all week long with little effort on my part.

And that's something worth singing about.

Pumpkin Streusel Coffee Cake

I can't resist a crunchy sweet streusel on anything for breakfast, and while I don't often take the time to make a coffee cake (though it doesn't take any more time than muffins, really), when I found a recipe for a pumpkin coffee cake with streusel topping in a recent issue of Vegetarian Times, I knew I had to try it. With a pumpkin and good whole grains from the farmers' market, plus cooler weather coming back to town soon, this seemed as good a time as any to pull out the recipe and my mixing bowls. The cream cheese filling is optional, but if you do use it, be aware that it will slow down your baking time since the middle of the cake will take longer to bake. Go make yourself another cup of coffee or tea while you wait.

2 c whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 c rolled oats
1 T baking powder
1 T ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp grated orange peel
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c (1 stick) butter, softened
1 c Sucanat
1 3/4 c steamed pumpkin cubes
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

Cream Cheese Filling:
3 oz cream cheese, softened
4 T butter, softened
1/4 c maple syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla

Streusel Topping:
1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 c rolled oats
1/4 c maple sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 c ground walnuts
4 T butter, melted

To make cake: Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 9" round springform pan and set on baking sheet.

Combine flour, oats, baking powder, spices, and salt in medium-sized mixing bowl. Set aside.

Cream together butter and Sucanat in large bowl until fluffy. In small food processor or blender, puree pumpkin cubes with eggs and vanilla until smooth and foamy. Add to butter mixture and beat or blend (if you have an immersion blender) until well-mixed. Add flour mixture in three stages, mixing well.

To make cream cheese filling: Cream together cream cheese and butter in small bowl. Mix in maple syrup and vanilla and beat until smooth.

To make streusel: Mix all ingredients together in small bowl until crumbly.

To assemble: Spread half the cake batter in prepared pan. Spoon cream cheese mixture on top and spread evenly. Top with remaining cake batter, smoothing batter with spatula. Sprinkle streusel evenly over top of cake. Bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (With the cream cheese filling, it may take closer to 1 hr 15 minutes.)

Cool at least 10 minutes. Slide onto serving plate, then remove outer ring of pan. Slice into wedges and serve.

Serves 8 to 12

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Rooted in Place

It's going to be a busy week, and at times like this I tend to feel a little dazed and frenzied, looking for something to ground me and keep me steady.

Naturally, then, I would turn to the comfort of a thick, creamy soup loaded with good local vegetables!

I've raved about my roasted potato soup before, and I knew that was the sort of thing I wanted on a chilly night. But I also knew I needed more vitamins than I would get just from plain ol' potatoes (no matter how much I love them), so I sorted through my stores of roots and tubers and came up with a sweet potato or two, a couple of carrots, and a pair of parsnips to add to the lot.

I talked with a friend while I peeled and chopped the vegetables, and after an hour's worth of roasting in the oven (mingled with good local garlic, a splash of olive oil, and some thyme), the chunks of vegetables cooled before I added them to a pot of stock and pureed them into oblivion.

Such an easy way to get plenty of good vegetables for dinner! And with a comforting little toasted, buttered bagel on the side, this soup made me very content and helped me relax for the evening.

The rest of the week might be crazy, but for one night at least I'm sinking into my roots.

Roasted Root Vegetable Soup

Please don't be picky and point out that this version is really "roots and tubers" as I'm aware of that. But since the original recipe (from the December 2000 issue of Vegetarian Times) was so versatile, I'm sure you could adapt it further to make it entirely based on root vegetables. Worth a try, anyway! Serving suggestions can vary from a glass of full-bodied red wine and a crisp salad to a simple chunk of hearty bread, so live it up as much as you like!

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed (I used 6-8 fingerlings)
2 small to medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 parsnips, peeled and sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
6-10 cloves garlic, peeled (more if you like!)
2 T olive oil
1/2 tsp dried thyme
4 c vegetable broth
Up to 1/2 c milk, half-and-half, or plain soy milk (NOT vanilla)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions, and garlic in large baking pan. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with thyme, and toss well. Season with salt and pepper. Roast vegetables for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

In large saucepan, bring broth to simmer over medium-low heat. Add roasted vegetables. With an immersion blender, puree mixture until creamy. Add milk as needed to create desired consistency. Continue to cook until heated through, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.

Serve right away, or cool, refrigerate, and reheat when needed.

Serves 8

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Terrible Twos

Though it's a very minor milestone for most of the world, I'm pleased to point out that today marks the second anniversary of this little blog's existence.

It doesn't seem possible that I've been tossing off my random little thoughts about food online here for that long, and it certainly continues to amaze me that now and again I discover another new reader who has found something to savor on this site. Thank you all for continuing to read, to comment, and to share your own stories!

Last year, I took the opportunity of this inconspicuous anniversary to share a list of things I'd learned from my blogging (and cooking) experiences, as well as a wish list. What a change a year makes! Shortly after declaring my disinclination to jazz up this journal with digital photography, two very kind and loving friends pitched in to buy me a new camera, and I've slowly begun to learn more about how best to photograph food. (You'd think that an inanimate object would be a very easy subject to photograph. Au contraire!)

I still have a hard time sometimes coming up with posts, either because I get into a rut in my cooking (or I eat out too much) or because life keeps me away from the keyboard. But I still find that "showing up" keeps challenging me to try, both in writing and in cooking. And I've definitely tried some new things this year, including drying food and stocking a more bountiful pantry in a smaller space. I've also learned to let go of recipes when needed, just to see what magic can occur when ideas override rules. (It's fun!)

Though Phoenix has left the immediate area after our last cooking lessons this summer, she has sent me reports of her many cooking successes in her co-op at grad school. I'm so proud of her! And though my personal pastry chef, Spicyflower, continues to ask for my advice at times, I find that I have much to learn from her, and I've only begun to scratch the surface. It's a pity that my favorite taste testers are now all out of range (though they frequently remind me of the convenience of the postal system), but with a larger crowd of students to feed this year, I don't feel too deprived of an audience when I try baking something new.

I didn't grow any heirloom vegetables this year, though I sought them avidly at the farmers' market, and I have yet to try making my own pasta (perhaps over the winter break?), but I'm pleased to report that gradually more recipes are lodging in my brain, and I'm able to improvise more readily than before.

In short, I think I've developed both greater confidence in my cooking skills and greater openness to a creative use of those skills. I know several friends have thought of me as a pretty terrific cook for a number of years, but from my own point of view, I think I've really taken a giant leap forward this year.

So how can I challenge myself for the coming year? Clearly I'll continue to deepen my efforts to support local food production as this has become a very important aspect of my cooking and eating. But what else?

1. Having found a small sprout kit at the Franklin Park Conservatory last week, I hope to try my hand at growing sprouts... and then using them!

2. Related to that, I'm hoping to grow some greens in a small planter here in the loft so that I have some fresh homegrown produce during the winter. It's worth a try!

3. I'm still hoping to learn how to make fresh pasta, and since I'm able to keep a small herb "garden" going, I'd like to try making pasta with fresh herbs pressed into it.

4. I'm going to try and make this year's harvest last as long as possible. I'm off to a good start so far since the pantry is still chock full of potatoes, onions, garlic, squash, and canned goods. Anyone want to predict how long it will take to use it all up?

5. I'd like to establish some new food traditions in my household. For example, December means holiday baking, of course, but for me that means a certain variety of cookies as well as baklava. To avoid overwhelming myself at this one time of year, I'd like to set for myself another baking "holiday" as well as other rituals. I'm not clear yet myself on what that might entail, but I'm going to give it some thought.

6. And, of course, I hope to continue developing new and semi-original recipes for my... and your!... delectation.

I'm not one for making "resolutions" come New Year's Day; I far prefer making lists of goals that I can chip away throughout the year, and this list definitely falls under that category. Will I manage to accomplish everything? Maybe not, but it gives me some good ideas for expanding my horizons.

You can rest assured that I'll keep you posted on any progress I make on any of these goals. After all, if it has to do with food, you can bet I'll tell you about it here.

So thanks for sticking around this far... I hope it can only get better!

Crunch Time

After the intensity of last week's round of holiday baking (only the first round!), you wouldn't think I'd turn right around and bake some more. Or would you?

Well, I just couldn't help myself, especially since I didn't have anything available for breakfast. Sure, I could have made pancakes –- I'm an old hand at that –- but come a wintry weekend morning, I want to fire up the oven and bake something laden with spicy goodness.

I still had two pumpkins from the farmers' market sitting on the counter, and one had started to develop a soft spot, so I knew it was time to cut it open and cook it for use in baking. Why not muffins?

Searching through my recipe notebook, I found a recipe for Pumpkin Praline Muffins (originally from the King Arthur Flour web site) and thought I'd go ahead and make those... with, of course, the requisite "tweaks" that make baking in my kitchen such a joyful adventure. Pumpkin, spices, and a sweet crunchy pecan topping... how could I resist?

Since I had laid in a large store of local baking ingredients for the holidays, I was able to dip into them for this recipe: locally ground whole wheat flour and oats, local maple syrup, local butter and eggs, and, of course, that pumpkin. I also switched the light brown sugar in the original recipe with maple sugar, and I added ground pecans to the muffin batter.

The batter turned out a little thicker than most muffin batters I've made, but the muffins themselves turned out moist and cake-like. The quantity of streusel topping might have been a bit over the top, but I certainly wasn't going to complain!

Good pumpkin flavor enhanced by warm spices, a soft crumb contrasted by a satisfying sweet crunch... the best of all possible muffin worlds, really. I'm afraid I ended up eating three warm samples for my breakfast along with a cup of hot spice tea.

Before the holiday baking kicks into gear again, I'll have to catch up on other cooking (not to mention cleaning and other chores). But such necessary food production can feel like a sweet indulgence sometimes.

It might be crunch time, but I'm going to enjoy it!

Pumpkin Maple Praline Muffins

I printed the original recipe from the King Arthur Flour site a couple of years ago and was very happy with the results then, but in my efforts to include more local goods and to satisfy my love of pecans, I've made more than a few changes. If you don't have maple sugar, Sucanat or regular brown sugar work just fine, but try to find maple sugar: its rich, caramel flavor makes such a difference. Pair these with a cup of spiced tea or coffee, put your feet up, and enjoy a quiet morning (if you can).

3 T unsalted butter, melted
1/3 c unbleached flour
1/3 c maple sugar
1 c chopped pecans
1 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 c rolled oats
1/4 c pecans
1 c unbleached flour
1/2 c whole wheat flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 c maple sugar
1/4 c butter, melted
1 c mashed cooked pumpkin
1/4 c maple syrup
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease muffin cups or line with muffin papers.

Make topping: Combine butter, flour, and sugar together until smooth. Stir in pecans and cinnamon. Set aside.

Grind oats and pecans together in small food processor; add to large mixing bowl. Add flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices; stir until well blended. Add maple sugar and stir to blend. Create a well in the center of the mixture.

In small food processor or blender, puree butter, pumpkin, maple syrup, egg, and vanilla. Add wet ingredients to flour mixture gradually and stir until all flour is incorporated.

Divide batter evenly among the muffin cups. Press the topping onto the top of each muffin; use as little or as much as you like. Bake until edges pull away from the sides and a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean, 20-22 minutes. Cool on a wire rack before removing from the pan.

Makes 12 muffins

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Eat Like You Live Here: December

It's hard to believe that we're into that final month of the year and the mad rush of the holiday season. Before you know it, it will be 2007, and our year-long local-eating challenge will be over.

But will it?

Over the course of this year, I've heard from a number of you, either in the comments or in a private email, about some of the terrific things you've discovered in your efforts to eat more locally-produced foods. Between your amazing finds at the farmers' market, your visits to local farms, or your experiences with delightful Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, it sounds like you've all found ways to make deeper connections to your communities through food.

Isn't that wonderful? I'm even a little jealous of some of you, despite the abundance of good local foods in my area, because your farmers' markets run longer or your CSA provides you food earlier and later than I can find here.

I even hope that as I've shared more from my readings or thoughts, you, too, have learned something new about our agricultural system and how we can improve what we eat and how we live by giving more attention to our food. And maybe, just maybe, you've gotten excited about it, like me, and have shared what you've learned with other people.

Did you make an entirely local meal and share it with your loved ones? Did you find, as Michael Pollan did in The Omnivore's Dilemma, that "Eating's not a bad way to get to know a place" (p.408)? Do you find yourself saying, as Mr. Nice Guy now often does, "Local tastes gooooood"?

Do you think you'll try to do even more to support local food production in the coming year? When all is said and done, that has been my ultimate goal with this challenge: to show that not only is celebrating local food a great thing to do for your community, your health, and your world, but it becomes easier and more of a joy the more you attend to what you're eating.

So here's your challenge for December: Think of ways you can build upon this year's challenge and enjoy even more local food in the coming year. And think about how you can persuade others to join you in your pursuit of fresh, seasonal, local produce.

It's a time to celebrate, so why not celebrate with local food?

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Baklava Is Back in Town

I know I haven't posted much this week, being far too wrapped up in getting the baking done and enjoying some dinners out with a friend.

At this point, though, all of the cookies for the first round of holiday baking are made: ginger-molasses cookies, chai spice shortbread, sunshine cookies, date nut cookies, cappuccino truffle cookies (a variation of chocolate charms), two kinds of biscotti, and even some delicious Indian spiced nuts.

I've started packing goodie boxes for my far-flung friends, lining the packages with colorful tissue paper and tossing a few samples of each item in to cheery holiday-patterned plastic bags, even tucking the occasional tea bag in to accompany such sweet treats.

But there's one thing still missing: baklava.

Never fear, though. I made sure to set aside some time tonight to bake the first pan of my signature treat so that the pieces would be cool enough to wrap and pack first thing tomorrow morning before I head to the post office.

As I've mentioned before, making baklava, instead of being a chore, is a truly relaxing and meditative experience for me. With the repetitive task of layering and brushing filo dough and spreading spiced nuts in occasionally, I slip into my baking "zone" and take great pleasure in knowing I'm creating something that will thrill my friends.

Can't you just smell those rich spices? Taste that sweet, syrupy honey? Feel the light, crisp layers of dough melt on your tongue?

This first pan's worth of squares will be gone before you know it, between these goodie boxes and a large selection for this year's students. But don't worry. I'll bake at least one more pan, perhaps two, to satisfy other friends, as well as myself.

It only comes once a year, this baklava baking frenzy.

But it's back, and it's better than ever.