Monday, December 31, 2007

Ale's Well That Ends Well

The other day, I had a phone call from the lovely Phoenix. We had hoped to get together during the holidays to visit with each other, and the time flew by before we could even get in contact. Happily, we still have a little free time left, and she arranged to visit New Year's evening for dinner and the day after for general wandering about town.

Since I hadn't fully shifted from the mindset of cooking for Inn guests to cooking for myself, it took me a little while to think about what to cook for Phoenix. Only a little while, though... she tends to love the same vegetables and flavors that I do, and she's always willing to try something new.

So once I had settled on a dinner plan (about which you will hear more later), I had to consider dessert. After all, what's a special visit from a special person without a special dessert?

I thumbed through my dessert notebook, and two recipes jumped out at me: a vegan chocolate cake and a chocolate Guinness cake. Tough choice!

While I know Phoenix appreciates vegan dishes, I was tempted by the one cake. But though I don't keep Guinness or any other stout on hand at home (I go out for that, like I did this afternoon, thanks), I considered the possibility of using some Christmas Ale from the local Great Lakes Brewing Company in its stead.

That idea stuck. Knowing that the Christmas Ale contains ginger and that dark chocolate and ginger go so well together, I decided to use the Guinness cake recipe as a base and layer the ginger flavor all the way through it.

In one bowl, I whisked together the dry ingredients, with the addition of some ground ginger. In the other bowl, I mixed the eggs and some yogurt. And in a saucepan, I heated the Christmas Ale, some butter, and a handful of crystallized ginger before whisking in the cocoa powder.

I mixed everything together, poured it into the cake pan and baked it. Of course, I should have (A) lined the pan with the buttered parchment paper called for in the recipe and then (B) waited until it had cooled more completely, because my lovely cake ended up a bit, um, torn.

I'm not one to be daunted by such a trivial flaw in appearance, though. I let the cake cool overnight before drizzling a ginger-honey syrup (what I've used on fruit at the Inn this week) over the top and then making a chocolate sauce (with more Christmas Ale and ginger) to enrobe the cake.

Yes, that problem patch in the cake top still showed through the sauce, but the advantage to it was that the syrup and the sauce both then soaked into the cake just a little more, turning it into a lushly moist dessert with a warming rush of ginger and ale all the way through.

It's a dessert that Phoenix will enjoy, I know. And what a way to end the year!

Happy New Year to all, and best wishes to you in 2008!

Chocolate Christmas Ale Cake

Based on a recipe for Guinness Cake found in the March 2006 issue of Vegetarian Times; sauce based on Ultimate Chocolate Sauce from Great Good Desserts Naturally!

2/3 c Great Lakes Brewery Christmas Ale
10 T unsalted butter
1/4 c mini diced crystallized ginger
1/2 c cocoa powder
1 1/3 c whole wheat flour
2/3 c sugar (cane juice crystals)
1/3 c maple sugar
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs
2/3 c plain yogurt, drained

Ginger Syrup
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c water
2 T mini diced crystallized ginger
1/2 c honey

3/8 c (6 T) Dutch process cocoa
1/4 c maple sugar
dash salt
1/4 c Christmas Ale
1/4 c Ginger Syrup

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease 8" round cake pan. Line with parchment. Butter paper.

Simmer ale, butter, and ginger in heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add cocoa; whisk until smooth. Cool slightly.

Whisk together flour, sugars, ginger, baking soda, and salt in large bowl.

Beat eggs and yogurt together in large bowl. Add ale mixture and mix well. Add flour mixture
in two additions, beating until combined. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake cake 50 to 55 minutes, until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Transfer to rack; cool 10 to 15 minutes. Run knife around edge to loosen; invert cake onto serving platter. Cool completely (overnight is good).

Combine sugar and water in heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. After sugar dissolves, bring syrup to boil and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Lower heat. Add ginger and honey, stirring until honey is incorporated. Set aside to cool.

Brush ginger syrup over cake (or drizzle, letting it sink in). Set cake aside for a few hours.

Sift together cocoa, maple sugar, and salt. Simmer ale and ginger syrup together until mixture comes to a boil. Add to dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.

Pour sauce over cake, allowing it to drip down the sides. (Smooth with spatula if needed.)
Serve at room temperature.

Serves 8-16, depending on how large you cut the slices

Chick Fix

One of the tricky areas of being a vegetarian who tries to eat mostly local foods is finding good sources of protein. Frankly, I feel that if I eat a varied enough diet, getting "Sources of Protein" isn't as critical because I'm picking up small amounts of it through everything. But well-loved family members and friends do occasionally express concern, and I don't want to downplay their concerns.

(Though given how much stronger and more fit I am than I used to be... eh well...)

Earlier this fall, my dear friend, the fair Titania, phoned me to rhapsodize over her farmers' market finds. (We enjoy the back and forth, comparing notes on what we can source locally. She had found a local source for dried chickpeas! And immediately, I was both jealous and shameless in my begging for her to purchase some for me.

Faithful friend that she is, she not only bought me one one-pound bag of the dried chickpeas, she bought two and sent them to me.

Then, of course, the rest of the fall sort of ran away from me, and it's only now -- during my much-longed-for winter break from work -- that I've had time to pull out a bag of beans and cook some for meals.

I've only soaked and cooked chickpeas from dried once before, and it didn't turn out so well, so I was a little nervous about this. But with a little coaching from the fair Titania, I dumped some chickpeas into a bowl, covered them with water, and let them soak overnight.

The next morning, the chickpeas had plumped up significantly, their skins smoothing out and occasionally loosening. I tested one, and while I could smash it with a little force, I knew they would all need a little more cooking. So I drained off the soaking water, poured the chickpeas into a saucepan, and added more water, setting the pan on to simmer.

After an hour or so of simmering, I had a pot full of velvety, tender chickpeas that tasted absolutely fantastic! No slime from the can! No weird off-flavor! Just a mouthful of chickpea goodness!

Ah, that made me happy. And what made me even happier was realizing that I had a few cups of cooked chickpeas ready to use in meals.

For dinner, then, I threw together a pot of chick pea minestrone, using homemade vegetable stock and local onions, garlic, carrots, peas (dried), green beans (from the freezer), tomatoes (canned), thyme (dried), oregano (ditto), basil (yup), and a swirl of homemade pesto. With the chickpeas thrown in, I had more than a meal... I had a heavenly feast!

And let me tell you, that was the best darn minestrone I have ever made. Wow!

Since I only used about a cup of chickpeas in the soup, I still have plenty for future dishes, so I'm sure you'll hear more about them soon.

As for Titania, if I could send her a pot of this as thanks, I would. Instead, I'll be sending off a little thank-you package to her later this week with some specialty baking items (some local!) that I know she'll enjoy using in her own kitchen.

That'll fix us both!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Shell Game

As part of my New Year's goals (not resolutions, those flimsy promises made to be broken), I avowed my hope to reduce my kitchen waste even before I take it to the compost pile.

So far, I've looked at making small changes:

--When I've used up all the florets from a head of broccoli, I peel and chop the stems and use them as well, instead of tossing them into the compost. That's sometimes a hard thing to do, just because it takes more effort, but I'm reminding myself that the stems have just as much flavor and nutrition and shouldn't be wasted.

--As I made vegetable stock for soup late last week, I used some of the parsnip greens I had tucked in the freezer a couple months ago. I also pulled out the rest of the bok choy sitting in the vegetable crisper, rinsed it, and sliced it down to the knob, tossing it into the pot, too. Though my stock recipe warns against using brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower) in the pot because of the infernal stink, the bok choy stems seemed more like celery, imparting a gentler flavor.

I've also been looking into ways to use spent eggshells, given the quantity of eggs I've gone through in baking season. I know that ground eggshells are useful in the garden to keep slugs from attacking growing vegetables, but until I get a chance to plant a garden this coming year, I need to find other uses. So here are a few I've gleaned from the Internet:

--Add ground eggshells to your coffee grounds to counteract some of the acids in coffee, resulting in a slightly smoother taste. (I did actually notice a small difference the first time I did this.)

--According to one online advice page, crushed eggshells placed into a dampened tea pot can remove tea stains. Since both of my teapots have been, ahem, well loved and used, I thought I'd give it a try. I sloshed a bit of water around the pots before adding the egg shells.

I let the pots sit overnight, and in the morning, I scrubbed the pots just a little, using the eggshells as an abrasive. I rinsed out the pots, poured the eggshells out, and...

OK, it's not a miracle cure, thanks to the years of tea stains layered on the pots. But there's a slight difference, so I'll probably have to try this trick again and again to get more of the stains out.

--And if you're wondering what I did with the eggshells rinsed out of the teapots, that same site indicates that you can dump the shells down the drain -- or just leave a bunch in the drain basket, to filter through as you run the water -- in order to clean the drain of grease and other yucky stuff. Worth a try!

--You can also use eggshells to clarify meat stock, but as I never make it, I haven't given it a try. (This tip comes from Splendid Table, one of my new favorite podcasts.)

As you might guess, trying to figure out new ways to use up kitchen scraps before they become "waste" makes for a fun guessing game.

And if you've got other ideas, let me know!

Gingerbread Woman

This last stretch of cooking breakfast at the Inn contains the tricky part. Since the guests staying there now had booked the house for nearly a week, I wanted to make sure that they didn't get bored with having the same breakfast morning after morning. In fact, in laying out the menus for the week, I tried to plan a different "entree" for each day.

After all, the surroundings might be the same each morning (beautifully decorated by the Innkeeper, of course, but the same every day), but the contents of the plates need not be.

This morning, then, I had a menu planned that repeated one regular item (bacon), one item made earlier in the week (scrambled eggs), and a couple of new dishes.

And since we're still in the midst of the holidays, I opted for a festive sort of breakfast cake, making a pan of gingerbread decked with slices of pear.

I decided to bake this yesterday afternoon at home so that I could use plenty of good local ingredients from my own pantry: flour, egg, sorghum, maple sugar, and the last of my home-canned pears. It smelled awfully tempting, but I didn't touch the cake until I got to the Inn this morning. Once I had cut it into wedges, I dusted it with powdered sugar and served it to a crowd of very delighted guests.

That made an excellent first course, combining the usual fruit and bread served first, and I followed it with scrambled eggs laced with cheddar cheese, bacon, and home fries.

All in all, they made a good crowd-pleasing breakfast, as the plates were pretty well cleaned by the time I brought them back into the kitchen.

Happily, they did save me a bit of gingerbread, and it turned out even better than I had hoped. That's a combination worth repeating!

I have two more breakfasts left to cook and serve: French toast with the Bistro Chef, and one final meal to celebrate the first of the New Year.

And then I'll celebrate going back to cooking for myself!

Pear Gingerbread

Based on the recipe for Upside Down Gingerbread from Vegetarian Times, March 2007, with very minor changes.

1 T unsalted butter, melted
3/4 c whole-wheat pastry flour
3/4 c unbleached flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
1/3 c sugar
1/3 c sorghum molasses
1/3 c unsweetened applesauce
1/4 c canola oil
1/3 c plain low-fat yogurt
1/4 c maple sugar
1 pear, peeled, cored, and cut in eighths (mine was home-canned)

Preheat oven to 350F. Brush round cake pan with butter.

Whisk flours, ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl. Beat together egg, sugar, molasses, applesauce, oil, and yogurt. Mix in flour (in two additions).

Scatter maple sugar over bottom of prepared pan. Arrange pear slices in a wheel over the sugar. Pour batter over pears.

Bake 35-40 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Loosen edges with knife. Invert cake onto platter.

Serves 8

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Queen of Cleanup

This week between Christmas and New Year's, when I'm free of the workday routine, is usually a time for me to switch into cleaning mode. All the housecleaning that I don't get around to during the holidays rises to the top of my to-do list, and the approach of the New Year compels me to sweep out the old to make room for the new.

Of course, this annual tradition has been thrown a little off-schedule thanks to my work at the Inn. But I'm still the Queen of Clean, there or at home.

I covered the breakfast shift this morning with the Bistro Chef at my side, and while he made whole wheat buttermilk pancakes for the guests, I whisked around him, preparing the broiled grapefruit, the bacon, the potatoes... and then made beds and cleaned one room before tackling the dishes. (What can I say? I'm a morning person, and he isn't.) He commented, as he so often does, that he could use someone like me in the Bistro kitchen. But I sass him enough that I think he thinks twice before following through...

Anyway, that cleaning mode continues to guide me once I head home after my shift, and so far this week I've finished thank you notes, put away presents, and got started on my break projects (of which there are many). And here on the blog, I'm going to try and "clean up" a few links and ideas that have been set aside lately.

Over at The Herbwife's Kitchen, there's a recent post about "Commonsense eating" that reminds us all that "I am not you" -- and therefore what food is right for me may not be right for you. That's a general principle I've tried to follow for years, especially since I went vegetarian, but it's not usually a conscious thought. Still, it helps to remind me that with all the diets and ways of eating out there, there's room for everyone at the table.

I can't remember where I came across this article, but if you want to know what "The 6 Most Unhealthy Foods" are, be prepared. I knew that soda was on the list, but I'm crushed to find that potato chips are so "bad." At least I don't eat nearly as many snack foods as I used to, but little things like this help keep me honest with myself.

And thinking of "bad" foods, The Bistro Chef's recent column in the local weekly talks about New Year's food resolutions. He points out the futility of "extreme" resolutions that label foods as "bad" and encourages readers to take "some small steps toward bettering ourselves and our society." For himself, he set three goals: to cook for his family more often, to try a new food ingredient each season, and to bake bread. These are all goals that I've set for myself, too, so I applaud his public effort to encourage others to think about resolutions differently.

So as the New Year approaches, I'll keep cleaning, making room in my home and my life for new good things.

May your own New Year be bright!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tiers of Joy

My family has had much to celebrate this Christmas: the first time in years when we've gotten together at the holidays, good travel weather, and the Chef Mother's slow but now steady recovery.

On top of that, we had an extra reason for celebration: My Wonderful Parents' 40th wedding anniversary.

Their anniversary actually slipped by back in October, but since I wasn't around that weekend (thanks to my work conference), I helped them celebrate it back in August with dinner at the local Bistro.

Talk about putting them off the scent! They had absolutely no clue that all fall I was in cahoots with my aunts (from both sides of the family) to plan a little party for them. We had a number of doubtful moments, when we weren't sure that the Chef Mother would be well enough to be out of the hospital for the holidays, but with a great deal of hope, we managed to pull it off.

I had talked with the Original Organic Farmer this summer about a cake for the party, since she caters many weddings and other celebrations. She pulled out all the stops and created a small two-tier low-sugar spice cake (respecting My Dear Papa's diabetes) with a low-sugar cream cheese buttercream frosting, with gorgeous red silk roses nestled around the base of the cake.

The Original Organic Farmer did herself proud, because the cake tasted as delectable as it looked, with the frosting coming across as having a flavor much like eggnog against the deep spicy moistness of the cake.

My aunts, uncles, and I waltzed into my folks' apartment this afternoon, shouting "Surprise!" and caught them both off-guard. (Shades of their 25th anniversary party, when I was able to surprise my mother three times over a weekend, though my father was in on the whole deal.) But they quickly adapted to the change in plans, oohed and ahhed over the cake, and stepped up to slice it, just as they did 40 years ago.

It has been an entirely too eventful year for My Wonderful Parents, but I'm going to go on record to say that in the midst of all the turmoil and the pain, we have as a family found many blessings. I am enormously proud of them both: of the Chef Mother for her persistence in fighting infection after infection and for pushing herself to strengthen her body; of My Dear Papa for all that he has done to keep their lives on track, to move them back home, and to smooth the way for my mother; and of my parents together, for sticking with each other through thick and thin over four whole decades.

And I'm not just saying that because they're now faithful readers of my blog... I see them making the effort day in and day out to renew their vows over and over again. They've set a marvelous example before me all my life, and I have hope that they will continue to share their love with us all.

I love you, Mom and Dad. Here's to many more!

A Grate Boxing Day Breakfast

Here in the States, we don't tend to celebrate Boxing Day, a holiday more common to the British Commonwealth, when gifts are given to "employees and the poor."

But since I'm trying to make every breakfast at the Inn this week a festive occasion, I suppose I celebrated this holiday in a punny way by pulling out the big box grater (oooh, bad, I know!) and shredded carrots, zucchini, and potato to make my favorite confetti pancakes:

I backed that with a bowl of scrambled eggs (to which I had hoped to add some fresh snipped chives, but my chive pot has after many years shriveled up) and some bacon:

I started the meal with broiled grapefruit, a fruit dish that the Innkeeper introduced to me, and it seemed a sunny sweet way to begin the day:

Simple, but satisfying all around, especially after the feasting of Christmas Day, and the guests again shared their compliments. (Wow, they must be an easy crowd!)

Tomorrow I won't get a chance to take photos or blog about breakfast since the Bistro Chef will be back and working with me, but I do know that the menu will include French toast with carmelized apples, sausage, yogurt with orange wedges and dried cranberries, and pains au chocolat made with the rest of my croissant dough.

Almost halfway done with my week at the Inn... more to come...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Dough Christmas Tree

It's Christmas! And like any child, I was up early today. Unlike them, though, I didn't have presents under the tree to pick up and shake... I had a chilly walk to the Inn to make breakfast for the guests.

Since My Fabulous Aunt and Uncle were among the guests, I had a special Christmas breakfast planned:

--wedges of fresh, juicy oranges arranged as stars, with fresh raspberries in the center and a drizzle of homemade honey-ginger syrup on top

--an egg-cheese-vegetable puff made with sauteed broccoli, carrots, and leeks; cheddar cheese; and a sprinkling of parsley
--sausage links

--and an overgrown cinnamon roll "Christmas tree" (yeah, I know, it's a very abstract sort of tree) made with local whole wheat flour, milk, egg, and honey

The meal received rave reviews from the guests (and the family), and they all enjoyed talking with each other and sharing the spirit of the holiday.

After I cleaned up in the kitchen (and made beds), I headed out with my aunt and uncle to my folks' place for Christmas presents and dinner. And since I'll have family in town for a couple more days, you may not hear from me until later this week.

So until then, Merry Christmas to all!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Stollen Moments

Thanks to the holidays, I'm putting a little more effort into my breakfasts here at the Inn, baking some special treats for guests who are away from home for Christmas.

After my breakfast shift yesterday, I headed home and started a loaf of stollen, the German Christmas bread filled with candied fruit, usually soaked in brandy. I had no brandy on hand, but I soaked my home-dried cherries and raisins in water laced with Fiori di Sicilia, a lovely orange-vanilla extract, and worked them into a half-whole-wheat dough.

It smelled so good that I welcomed the chance this morning to cut into the crescent-shaped loaf and to warm up a few slices in the oven.

Those went out to the table for the first course along with the orange juice and a cup of vanilla yogurt topped with fresh raspberries (not local, obviously, but they were in the refrigerator and needed to be used before they molded) and a sprinkle of cocoa powder.

For the main course, I heated up more bacon and served it alongside a creamy potato and zucchini frittata with colby and jack cheeses.

The guests enjoyed the whole breakfast, but they did leave a slice of frittata on the platter. Personally, I'm grateful for the leftovers as that frittata really tasted good!

Since I had come in yesterday afternoon to prep vegetables and to check in new guests, I had plenty of prep time this morning, so once today's work was under control, I started on tomorrow's menu. I prepped and sauteed vegetables and started cinnamon roll dough, saving myself a good bit of time for Christmas.

I'm off to run a couple of Inn-related errands, but I'll be back tomorrow (or the next day?) with more cooking adventures...

Sunday, December 23, 2007

No Room at the Inn

Thank heaven I have two weeks away from my day job, because starting today, I'm working at the Inn for a week and a half straight.

The Innkeeper has headed off for a long holiday vacation with her family, and the Bistro Chef has left town for a few days for the same, so it's just me, stepping in as Assistant Innkeeper.

And let me tell you, it's going to be a busy week...!

Although I won't be serving a huge number of guests each morning for breakfast, I'll be cooking for anywhere from 2 to 8 people each day, some of whom are staying for multiple days. So not only do I need to make two-course breakfasts for more people than I usually cook for, but I need to keep the menus varied so no one gets bored.

I'm prepared, though. I've got my list of menus, my list of chores, my baking schedule, and my laptop (so I can blog about it all, of course!).

This morning, I had only two guests scheduled for breakfast, and I was ready with a simple menu.

I started off with the usual fruit cup, today consisting of vanilla yogurt, apple slices (local Honeycrisp apples, so tasty!), and a sprinkling of granola.

For the main course, I whipped up a cheese grits souffle, this time using spinach for the vegetable and a combination of colby and jack cheeses. The guests enjoyed the new twist to an old favorite, especially as it was accompanied by fresh biscuits and slices of bacon. (Of course, it would have been fine without the bacon, but the Innkeeper generally likes to have a little meat along with the main course, and most guests aren't vegetarian, so I can oblige them.)

I'm pleased that I had everything so well planned that I worked at a steady but gentle pace this morning, staying on top of the cleanup as well as the cooking, and the guests were delighted with everything. I'm sure it will get a little more hectic later in the week when more guests are around, but with the first solo day under my belt, I feel more confident.

Maybe if I keep this up, I'll find a present for me in that sleigh of Santa's, now parked out on the front porch!

I'll be sure to update you with further menus and adventures as the week progresses, so stay tuned!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sunshine and Sprinkles

For the past month or two, Beaker -- the elder of My Adorable Nephews -- has been asking his mother if I would bake Christmas cookies with them again this year.

Considering that we all had so much fun last year, the answer was a resounding "Yes!" on all parts. And now that he's out of school for the holidays and I have started my two-week respite from the office, today seemed the perfect day to get together and round out our holiday baking.

Earlier in the week, it struck me that this might also be the perfect time for me to pull out a little story book I'd been saving for the boys. Called Sun Bread by Elisa Kleven, it tells the story of a resourceful baker who made a bread so light and warming that it enticed the long-lost sun to return to a wintry world gone gray. And since today marks the winter solstice, what could be more appropriate?

I threw the dough together at home just before setting out, and given that my hike to their house took about 45 minutes, by the time I arrived, settled down, and read them the story, the dough was ready for us to shape it.

The boys enjoyed the bouncy reaction of the bread dough as well as the need to work the bits of dough with our hands. And while I certainly tried to keep the design of the loaf fairly neat, it ended up looking like a beautiful ornate stylized sun that might have adorned a Mayan temple or a Celtic stone circle.

The oven ran a little hot, so the sun bread itself got a little, er, toasty -- but it still tasted wonderful!

While the bread baked, the Southern Belle and I mixed the cookie dough, and we called the boys back into the kitchen when we were ready to roll out the dough...

...and to cut out a wide variety of Christmas and Southwestern shapes, from Santa Claus to cacti and coyotes.

My Adorable Nephews didn't last long. There wasn't a whole lot of room at the counter for both of them to cut out cookies, and computer games looked a lot more appealing to them. So instead, the Southern Belle and I cut out most of the remaining cookies and baked them, saving the last couple dozen for after lunch.

Once we had finished all the baking, we brought the boys back in to help frost the cookies, and this time they stayed until the very end, putting their own creative stamp on the decorations by piling on the frosting, swirling together colors, and adding sprinkles of colored sugar.

I noshed on a few while I was there, hoping to avoid the temptation to take too many cookies home with me, and I managed to pack away only a few unusual shapes to share with My Wonderful Parents. (My Dear Papa had expressed interest in a cactus cookie.)

By that time, the boys had pretty well worn me out, and I headed home with every intention of taking myself out to dinner at the Bistro.

We'll try a couple of things differently next year, the Southern Belle and I, since the boys will still be a little young to last through the entire baking bash. But we agreed that it's a tradition worth continuing, just for the sheer fun and joy of being together.

And how could I do without my Christmas cookie sunshine?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sour You Doing?

Over the years, I've learned to trust my body to tell me what it truly needs. I don't live day to day basing my meals on cravings, but when I do get a strong craving for some particular kind of food, I've learned to listen because it means something in my nutritional intake is lacking and needs to be bolstered.

If I'm feeling tired and run-down, chances are that I need more dark leafy greens because I've probably gotten slightly anemic. If I feel some sort of illness coming on, I may start craving citrus, determined to pump more vitamin C into my system, or garlic, for its antibiotic properties. You get the idea.

During my recent respiratory infection, which is finally (finally!) tapering off, I went through all sorts of cravings: constant supplies of herbal teas liberally laced with honey, lots of garlic, mild starches (especially potatoes), and pickles.

Wait. Pickles? She who never cared for pickles, now craves them???

Believe me, I'm as surprised as you are. Granted, I learned to appreciate some pickled foods a little more this summer, thanks to my vinegar adventures, but I've never before experienced actual pickle cravings. It's just odd.

When I made Indian spiced foods during my illness, hoping that the heat and spices would burn out some of the germs, I also reached for the cantaloupe chutney and... yes, truly... the watermelon pickles. And oh my goodness! They tasted so unbelievably good that I had a hard time restraining myself from cleaning out the entire jar.

Tonight, I felt the craving again, so I pulled out a triple whammy of vinegary treats. I sauteed some bok choy with garlic and tossed it with balsamic vinegar; I browned a vegetarian burger and topped it with local Cheddar cheese and homemade zucchini relish; and I added a pile of watermelon pickles to the plate.

I almost wanted to lick the plate, it tasted so right to me.

I don't quite understand what it is about vinegar that makes it so appealing when I'm under the weather. Is it more full of vitamin C than orange juice? Is it because that tang provides an almost cleansing sensation to a system too long crudded up? After all the bland comfort food, is the acidic nature of vinegar needed to bring me back into balance? (A quick Google search indicates that that might be part of the cause, as well as a need for more potassium.) If you have any other ideas, feel free to let me know in the comments!

I wonder if I'll turn into a happy sour addict? (Probably not, but hmmm...)

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Food Rest Ye Merry, Gentle Friends

It's been several years now since I decided that the majority of the gifts I would give at birthdays and Christmas would be homemade (hand-crafted or cooked). I found it so much more satisfying to be able to personalize gifts for my friends that I tried to encourage a similar gift-giving policy on their parts.

Some friends took to it immediately, happy to put their hands and hearts to work together to create something to share with me. And while I still occasionally get store-bought gifts (some of which are very useful!), by now I've been able to persuade some of those same friends to follow me in giving just food gifts.

Last weekend, My Dear Papa delivered a small plate full of his home-baked sugar cookies and Russian teacakes. I didn't get a photo of them as they didn't last very long (though you can see similar cookies at Janet's site), but it delighted me to no end to get that kind of surprise from my father.

I also received a box from my friend Sojourner. She's usually my source for "local" pecans since there's a pecan farm not far from her in Springfield, Illinois, but this year's crop was destroyed by the late hard frost. Instead, she ordered a big bag of pecans for me from Koinonia Farms -- birthplace of Habitat for Humanity -- in Americus, Georgia. Granted, they're not local for either of us, but I definitely appreciated the connection to a gift she's shared before as well as to an excellent cause.

And this morning, the Archivist strolled into my office with a big bag containing all sorts of edible treats, both local and store-bought. Wrapped in a beautiful striped dish towel (something I always need!) were a jar of her fantastic dilled green beans (and cukes), her delectable cranberry-pistachio biscotti, a small tin of gourmet hot cocoa, a tin of candied ginger bits (since she knows how much I love to bake with ginger), and a sampler of five kinds of shortbread cookies. Since the Archivist asked my opinion on the different shortbread flavors, I'll just say for the record that while it was a very difficult call, I'd call the amaretto version the best, followed by the orange and the lemon (tied), the cinnamon, and the blackberry brandy. (Where does she get these ideas? Wow!)

Dear Reader Tina has promised her annual cookie selection, so I will probably see that sometime next week, and I'll also get my usual collection of homemade buckeyes and caramels from My Fabulous Aunt when she comes to town for Christmas. How sweet it is!

In a world with much too much stuff and even more waste -- where having more is no guarantee of happiness -- I'm so thrilled to share these little gifts with the special people in my life. They're small, inexpensive presents that don't last long, it's true. (That's what I love!) But the joy of sharing our different holiday traditions, favorite recipes, or local food finds means so much more to me.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Leaning Tower of Biscuit

I used a small round biscuit cutter to shape these this morning, making sure the dough was extra thick so they'd grow up nice and tall.

And then, they toppled over.

It's not my weekend for grand baking successes, apparently. But they're still tasty and oh-so-adorable to boot, so I can't complain.

Tipsy biscuits... how can you not laugh?

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Split Decision

I woke up late this morning, feeling a little complacent. Christmas may be fast approaching, but my list of baking tasks has dwindled rapidly of late thanks to division and distribution of those holiday goodies already baked.

I started off the day's baking by trying a new recipe for a Hungarian Christmas bread. I had my misgivings about it since I'm not a huge fan of poppy seed filling (and there's a lot of poppy seed filling in Hungarian pastries, if I go by what I see at the local pastry shop), but I thought I should still give it a try.

Unfortunately, this recipe seemed determined not to cooperate with me. I confess that I did change a few things -- using milk instead of water and dry milk, melting the butter in the heated milk, using a cup of spelt flour and cutting back on the regular flour -- but the dough turned out surprisingly dry and resistant to kneading. I know that Hungarian pastries, at least as the Pastry Lady makes them, tend to be less moist and sweet, but are they always this difficult to handle?

Anyway, once I gave up on kneading the dough, I turned my attention to cooking the ground poppy seeds with sugar, milk, raisins, and a splash of lemon juice, stirring constantly until it all thickened. After that, I ran off to the Inn for my last-minute marching orders from the Innkeeper (since I'm filling in for her over the holidays).

By the time I returned home two hours later, the dough had risen only a tiny bit, but I decided to forge ahead. After rolling out the dough, I spread the sticky poppy seed and raisin filling over it and rolled it up.

I tucked in the ends, brushed the loaf with a beaten egg, and slid it into the oven, thinking that I had managed to salvage the recipe after all. Weeeeellll......

Hmm. I was definitely not expecting the loaf to split down the top! It has a certain attraction, but it's really not the way the loaf should look. Still, the first slice proved that the taste was pretty good, even if it wouldn't win a bread-baking beauty contest.

In the meantime, I put my new mixer to work again, churning out dough for the second batch of biscotti for the season. Instead of making my usual cranberry-orange biscotti, I decided to adapt the recipe to use my oven-dried cherries and a sprinkling of bittersweet chocolate chips.

Again, all went well until I pulled the pan out of the oven and discovered that the loaves hadn't baked all the way through. So, after much finagling with the baking times, I ended up with toasty brown (but fully cooked) and crisp biscotti that still served up a delicious combination of rich cherry flavor and deep dark chocolate.

All throughout the baking time, I caught up with various friends and family members on the phone, working out the last details of upcoming holiday visits. As I digested the information they gave -- and watched the slowly but steadily drifting snow flurries that heralded the start of a storm -- I made a decision. As of today, I'm done baking for the holidays aside from three exceptions: one last pan of baklava (to be made Tuesday with the assistance of the faithful Persephone and She Who Will Not Be Labeled), the annual cookie baking with My Adorable Nephews, and the remaining holiday yeast breads.

Really, it's not a difficult decision to make. I've given most of my Christmas baked gifts by now. I still can't eat many of them myself thanks to the lingering effects on my appetite from my recent infection. And as I watched the snow cover everything in sight this afternoon, I thought how lovely it was to have that reminder of what's important and what isn't. (Hiking out in the cold snow for an orange just to make another batch of cookies isn't that important.)

A minor weight lifted off my shoulders with that decision, and now I can focus my baking over the next couple of weeks on the breads I want to give to my family and to serve at the Inn while I'm working.

And I think I might just sleep in tomorrow, too, before starting anything new.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What a Cheesy Idea!

Growing up, one of my all-time favorite dishes was macaroni and cheese. Given my all-American upbringing, that should come as no surprise... it has long been a favorite of children.

There were two variations -- only two -- that were acceptable to my fussy young palate. The first was the Kraft version out of the "blue box": tiny macaroni that never got very big, and a packet of powdered orange stuff that contained dry cheese and heaven only knows what else. I know, I know, it goes completely against everything I stand for now in the kitchen, but even well into grad school I would still get cravings for what our Canadian neighbors call the "Kraft Dinner."

The other variation that I would clamor for was the Chef Mother's homemade mac and cheese, with big tender macaroni curls, a thick and velvety homemade cheese sauce, and a buttery cracker-crumb topping. And if I were very lucky, she would have made extra cheese sauce to ladle over my toast the next morning.

What is it that we love so much about macaroni and cheese? It's the quintessential comfort food: a bland starch coated with creamy mild dairy products, with little seasoning to detract from the slippery pasta and filling sauce.

Trouble is, that combination doesn't exactly make for the healthiest of meals. As I grew older, I learned to love steamed broccoli thrown into the mix, but it still really boils down to carbohydrates and fat. And while I've got nothing against either, there's got to be a better and healthier way to enjoy this classic dish.

If you've been thinking the same thing, I've got good news for you. Bri over at Figs with Bri recently posted a thoroughly tempting recipe for Acorn Squash and Sage Macaroni and Cheese, and I knew I had to try it since I had one last acorn squash from the farmers' market sitting on the table.

Unfortunately, a little thing called a respiratory infection delayed my plans (for about two weeks), and when I could finally manage to enjoy dairy foods without coughing my lungs out, I invited the faithful Persephone over for a delicious dinner of home-cooked comfort food.

As you might expect, I couldn't quite leave the recipe alone. Bri used a combination of sage cheddar and jack cheeses for her version, but I knew that the remaining Gruyère in the refrigerator would be perfect in the dish. Aside from that, my "tweaks" resulted from the delay in making the dish: my cottage cheese had gone off, so I replaced it with plain yogurt, and my milk had gone slightly sour, adding a little extra tang to the dish.

Still, everything went together beautifully, and I made the best darn cheese sauce I've made in a long time. The squash and yogurt puree added the extra thickness and nutrition needed to propel this mac and cheese recipe into the ranks of The Best, right up there with the Chef Mother's recipe.

Of course, I got started with dinner well before Persephone arrived, so the kale I braised to go with the pasta ended up rather lifeless, though still well flavored from the garlic and cider vinegar I added to it, and it offered a good contrast to the creamy texture of the macaroni.

Though I made only a half-recipe, I had hoped to tuck some away for leftovers (and for lunch tomorrow). But by the time Persephone and I had scraped the last bits off our plates, we had decided that leftovers were for sissies and we were going to finish off the macaroni and cheese right then and there, by golly.

So we did. What bliss!

I won't repeat Bri's recipe here as there's just no improving on it -- though I think I may try it again and use a different cheese or even replace the sage with rosemary. Go visit her site and look it up, and enjoy some of the other beautiful and tempting dishes she has made. As for me, I'm sending out a big "Thanks!" to you, Bri!

Cheese, that's a good meal!

Monday, December 10, 2007

It's a Giving...

Christmas is fast approaching, but for once in my life, I feel like I have the season under control in my little world. At least half of the baking is done, and I have been distributing the goodies widely:

--seven boxes sent out on Saturday morning
--a tin of baklava brought to work for the students
--bags of treats given to The Boss Man, She Who Brings Fresh Donuts, and The Archivist
--a delivery of St. Lucia buns to my former choir director, home recovering from a kidney transplant
--bags of sweets to give to the Innkeeper and the Bistro Chef when I meet them for lunch later this week

I still have more baking to do, of course, but not as much as I had thought since at this point I have just a few people left to feed. What a relief!

In the meantime, I've been thinking about some of the other homemade food-related gifts that I've given in the past, and I've put together an enticing list for you to enjoy over at the Ethicurean. Some can be made very quickly, while others might give you ideas for next year's giving season. And if anything, make a batch of those spiced pecans for yourself... I'm sorely tempted to make more just for me!

Bonnie's just put up the annual Holiday Gift Guide at the Ethicurean, and you can find other last-minute ideas there. (I'm with her, though... no more stuff, please!)

If you're feeling a little humbuggish, or you have a dark sense of humor and can laugh at the follies of Big Farma (as Elanor has dubbed it in her recent posts at the Ethicurean; a must read!), you might want to visit Growers and Grocers to check out "The Twelve Days of Agribusiness." (Gee, nothing about those dandy MRSA cases!)

But the best gift of all? Spending time with the people you love. So aside from the last baking I need to do over the next couple of weeks, I'll be making some time to visit with friends and family.

Hope you'll enjoy the season of giving, too!


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Layers of Meaning

Since I gave up giving Christmas gifts (aside from food-related presents) a few years ago, my holiday baking has become an even more important tradition, especially when it comes to sharing the joys of the season with friends who live in far-off cities. And though some of my recent cookie creations have become must-have items for certain people, one particular baked good remains at the top of most of my friends' lists: baklava.

I don't know if it's because baklava is not a traditional Christmas food in their pasts, or if it's because the baklava I make is so irresistibly honey- and nut-rich that it makes a nice change of pace from all the other holiday goodies, but come November, my friends start hinting about what they hope to find in their mailboxes by mid-December. (Yes, I'm talking about the Gentleman specifically, but others are equally adamant about getting their fair share.)

So what else can I do but live up to the name bestowed upon me (oh, so hopefully!) a number of years ago?

Late last week, I had hoped to spend an evening showing the faithful Persephone and my delightfully eccentric student assistant, She Who Cannot Be Labeled, how to make baklava. They both ended up being unable to visit, so we postponed our lesson for a week or two, and I made two pans of baklava on my own. With that, I could fill the last holes in the boxes I sent out over the weekend, and I had plenty left over to take to work and to share with friends in town.

Today, though, I had another lesson in baklava-making planned. The Gentleman Farmer's Wife -- henceforth to be known as the Lady Bountiful, for her generous habit of giving me more of her wonderful produce than I would dare hope for! -- had asked me to show her how to make it since it's her husband's favorite dessert. Since I had wanted her to visit once the growing season wrapped up, it worked out perfectly.

The Lady brought her lively five-year-old daughter, Miss Hilarious, along for the lesson, so we had a great time with everyone pitching in to make the perfect pan of baklava. And since I don't usually take photos of the different stages of making it -- I usually get into the zone and just whip through a pan with no thought of stopping -- they obliged me by letting me snap pictures while they worked.

I demonstrated brushing the first layer with melted butter, and both of them developed the knack of doing it right away, so I let them assemble the whole pan, stopping only to scatter the spiced nuts in between selected layers.

Once the pan was full, I showed the Lady how to cut through the very slippery filo without
pulling the layers askew. She decided to try half the pan cut as rectangles and half as diamonds to see which would work better for her in future (and her daughter willingly pointed out where to cut!).

After the pan went into the oven, we stirred together the honey-lemon syrup and then set it aside to cool while we headed out to the Hungarian pastry shop for a little treat of our own.

When the hour was up, we pulled the pan from the oven and poured the syrup on top of the pieces, enjoying the loud hiss of the liquid soaking into the hot layers. (I didn't get a good picture of their finished baklava, so here's mine from a few nights ago.)

While the baklava cooled enough to be carried to the car, we sat and talked a while longer, discussing the upcoming changes to the ever-expanding farmers' market and just enjoying being friends. And when the Lady left, she thanked me profusely, while all the while I felt as though I were the one to reap all the benefits from the day. (She brought several still-ripening tomatoes, half a dozen green peppers, a last onion, and a little Christmas present... how lucky I am! Plus I had the delightful company of a new friend... what could be better?)

It's not often I get to share the behind-the-scenes work of holiday baking with someone else, but I always enjoy it when I do. Traditions mean so much more when you can share the stories and the experiences behind them.

I hope this will be the start of an equally sweet Christmas tradition for them!