Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Collin Street Bakery

There was one more thing I was reminded of in Texas that I'd totally forgotten about, and will happily remember now next Christmas: Collin Street Bakery.

Okay, I know that fruitcake is kind of an acquired taste. And I know that the fact that I don't hate it makes me an anomaly. Granted, most fruitcakes are ... meh ... at best, and if I go through an entire Christmas season (or eight) without one, I don't miss it. I don't, really, even remember it.

Collin Street is different. They honestly have the best fruitcakes I've ever had - moist, spicy and not liquored-up. They also do a pecan cake that's downright ridiculous. Everyone in my parents' area that I know orders one and has it shipped for the holidays (their original store was in Corsicana, Texas). My mom had one this year, and holy cow. I ate it for breakfast on Christmas morning, and it pretty much is the taste of Christmas.

I plan to order one next year, and if you don't despise fruitcake - and even if you do - you may want to consider it yourself.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Wrapup: What I ate

My daddy's beautiful pond, which he dug himself.

So, I'm sorry I vanished. Christmas really grabbed me by the throat this year, and it seemed like I had no opportunity to think, much less sit down and write something coherent. Now, here we are, umpteen days since my last post, and I'm finally able to breathe.


You see, for the first time in ages and ages, I went home for the holidays, where home = Texas. It was awesome, actually; everything was pretty much right where I left it. Even the feed store (do they have feed stores in California?) was in the exact same place. The unchangeability of small town Texas is deeply impressive.

My family, too, was quite awesome, with my dad and mom still playfully bickering about pretty much everything. My sisters are beautiful, strong, amazing women, and my two baby nephews take adorableness to whole new levels. I am not allowed to post pictures of them, because the cute would kill you. For serious.

And I don't have that many readers.

Anyway, one of the best things about going home is eating food you never get to eat normally. I didn't get any pictures, sorry; too busy stuffing my face. But I thought I'd take you through some of what home tastes like for me.

Cracker Barrel - Okay, if you've never eaten at a Cracker Barrel, you so seriously don't know what you're missing. Or maybe you hate Southern food - and freedom - and you don't care. But I had dreams of this place before I left for Texas. I think the farthest west I've found them was in Arizona, so it's been...what...six or seven years since I've eaten here? A long time.

I ate at Cracker Barrel every single day I was there except Christmas day, and then only because they weren't open. There's nothing healthy on the menu: the hash brown casserole is dripping with cheese and sour cream, the carrots are glazed in sugar, the chicken is deep fried and everything's smothered in sweet milk gravy. (Sweet milk is the opposite of buttermilk - it's what the rest of you heathens call "milk".)

Heaven. Particularly because they have ...

Sweet Tea - Ah, yes. The nectar of the South. This is iced tea (plain old Lipton tea) with lots and lots of sugar in it, but that doesn't do it justice. In California, they always serve iced tea (and it's not nearly as ubiquitous here as in the South) unsweetened. You can add sugar to it, but a.) people look at you askance and b.) it never seems to really dissolve once the tea's cold and leaves a big puddle in the bottom of the glass. You have to put the sugar in the pitcher when the tea's still warm.

Besides, as I told my mother, it's not really about putting sugar in your tea; it's about putting tea in your sugar.

Basically, I drank it like it was laced with heroin. The Cracker Barrel waitress finally just offered to leave the pitcher on the table.

Boudin - My parents live in Southeast Texas, which is close enough to the Southwest Louisiana border that it's still marginally Cajun Country. There are plenty of Guilbeaus and Thibodeauxs there, at least. (People there call Cajuns "coonasses", which is really rude and still makes me laugh.)

I preface this that way because Boudin is a strictly Cajun thing, and outside of Cajun Country, it's pretty much unheard of. Actually, according to wikipedia, what they serve there is actually "boudin blanc". It looks like sausage; at least, it's stuffed in a pork casing like sausage. But it's really a rice dressing - pork sausage, parsley and herbs, mixed with white rice. This is then stuffed in the casing, and either baked or steamed until hot.

You split open the casing, scrape out the dressing and spread it on Saltine crackers. If you're not deathly allergic to cayenne pepper like me, you then douse it with Tabasco. It's a staple appetizer at home, and we actually had it as a part of our Christmas day dinner buffet. I didn't realize how much I missed it until then, and suddenly paying $40 just to have it shipped to me actually seems doable.

I'm hoping I get over that.

Wolf Brand Chili - Yes, it's canned chili. And yes, I should be embarrassed. But I'm not, because it's better than any stupid canned chili in California. Stupid California chili.

So, I bought a bunch of it and stuffed it in every spare nook and cranny in my suitcase. My parents noticed, but said nothing, bless them.

Of course, it's not as good as...

My Mama's Chili - Or her homemade cookies, for that matter. She makes spicy chili with big chunks of ground beef, and serves it over rice with lots of butter. She had some made the last day, when I stopped by before leaving for the airport.

She also made lots of cookies for Christmas: oatmeal chocolate chip, sugar cookies with colored icing and these cherry cookies that were to die for (also, pink). When I was driving to the airport, I opened my bag to find a ziploc baggie full of cookies for the road.

There really is no place like home.

And finally, to make up for this nearly picture-less trip, here's a picture of me, taken by my three-year-old nephew.

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

TWD/Holiday Cookies: Volcano Cookies

So, I didn't do anything right with this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe. First of all, as you might notice, this is not Tuesday.

But yesterday was a long day and I couldn't find my camera USB cord and I couldn't think of a good way to start a post, and basically, I couldn't be bothered. So, this week, it's "Wednesdays with Dorie". Deal.

Also, the actual recipe is for "Cafe Volcano Cookies" - where the main flavor is espresso. I'm not a huge fan of espresso in baked goods, so I turned these into Cocoa Volcano Cookies with the addition of cocoa and cinnamon.

And holy crap are they good! Granted, as you can see from my awe-inspiring photography, they don't look like much. And, essentially, they aren't much. The totality of the recipe is 2 cups of nuts (half walnuts/half almonds), egg whites, sugar and the flavorings. (Again, the recipe calls for espresso powder - I replaced this with 2 tablespoons of cocoa and a generous pinch of cinnamon.)

After toasting the nuts, you warm all the ingredients in a saucepan on the stovetop, then drop it by teaspoonfuls onto a Silpat-lined baking sheet. I have to say that while I was doing this, I kept thinking that this didn't look like a cookie at all and maybe this Dorie person is crazy.

Turns out she's not, and they bake into crackly, crunchy, yummy little meringues of goodness.

Now, two things on these. One, I would have taken them out of the oven just a minute or two sooner than I did this time (I left them about as long as the recipe said). The bottoms were not quite to burned, but were getting there.

Also, one of the other TWD bakers mentioned on the site to only bake these on Silpat, not on parchment paper. I forgot about this tip and baked one on each. The Silpat batch came up from the baking sheet without a problem. However, the parchment ones stuck horribly, and they got darker on the bottom, too. So, I'd say a Silpat is a requirement for these.

Otherwise, I absolutely loved these, and they were popular with my coworkers, too. They're also gluten-free, which is a plus.

As always, I can't post the recipe, but if you want it online, it's on this week's chooser MacDuff's blog, The Lonely Sidecar.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Five Things

So, there's still a little buying time left before what my friend Bella calls "Giftmas." Therefore (ergo), I thought I'd channel Oprah and do a post about five things I love and think you should buy for someone. Anyone, really. Including you.

And no, I get paid by none of these people. And I don't know anything about any of them other than I like them. Oh, and if you have stuff you like, consider doing your own "five things" post on your blog, because I always need new stuff.

Without further ado, here are my five things, with absolutely no common thread between them and in no particular order.

1. Roku - Oh, how I love my little Roku box. It plugs into your teevee, and then connects wirelessly to the internet. From there, the main draw is that you can watch unlimited movies instantly on Netflix if you have a subscription. Mine's only $15 a month. Granted, they're still building their movie and TV show collection, but I was surprised at what I could find on Watch Instantly; I have 63 titles in my queue, and many of those are full, multi-episode tv seasons.

But there's more! You can also download movies and TV shows from Amazon's Video on Demand, and therefore rent newer movies on a pay-per-view basis. Plus, Pandora streams their internet radio service onto your Roku; I'm listening to my "holiday" station through my teevee's speakers as we speak. They're also adding more channels - like Major League Baseball - so there's no telling where the service will go in the future.

I know there are other services like this, but I liked that it gave me access to things I was already using, all in one place. Plus, it's a fairly inexpensive option - just $79-99. It also took me no time to hook up, and I usually suck at things like that.

So, yes, Roku is currently one of my favorite things.

2. Erase Paste - I guess you know that you're of "a certain age" when number two on your favorite things list is concealer.

And yet I love it.

Erase Paste is from Benefit, and a little spendy, at about $26. But it's the best concealer I've found in ages. It's really light, but the coverage is great and a little bit goes a long way. It also tends to lighten everything up, but not in a noticeable way. It is, as I told my friend, like a real-life Photoshop.

And we could all use a little of that.

3. "Come to Me" by Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab - I can, and should, do a whole post on BPAL. Let's just say that they're the best, most unique fragrance purveyor on the Interwebs. I can't really do their site justice, you have to go there yourself.

No seriously, go there. I'll wait.

See? Their whole store is devoted to utterly unique fragrances. But they don't just throw together a bunch of oils. They take myths, legends, deities and characters from stories (Lucy Westenra, anyone?). Then, they create oil blends to match the stories. Some of them are truly unique. One of my favorites is called Zombi, which is a blend of Spanish moss, grave dirt and dried roses. Kick ass, no?

So, currently, my Favorite Thing from BPAL is a scent called "Come to Me". I wear it obsessively. It's supposed to be an old voodoo recipe for drawing the male attention, and I do have to admit that it seems to work in that respect. But mostly it's just clean-smelling and sexy and awesome. I love it.

4. Dragon Age - Okay, I've talked about Dragon Age before, but come on! Seriously one of the best video games I've ever played, hands down.

It's "dark fantasy" and yes, okay, a little bloody. (I do love me a good beheading.) But the story! The story is as good as any I've ever seen, and I actually got emotionally attached to my "friends" in my party. The game isn't hard to learn, but it is hard to stop playing - every person I know who's started it has had a hard time putting it down.

If you're a gamer and even if you're not, it's really worth trying it - especially if you like good storytelling. There's nothing like a really good story, except when you're the hero. That's really awesome.

5. Cuisinart Pure Indulgence 2-Quart Ice Cream Maker - You know I had to get at least one kitchen appliance in this list, and this is both one of my favorite appliances and one of my favorite gifts.

I know a lot of people get one of these, make ice cream once or twice, and then never use it again, but I've made dozens of batches. I just keep the inner container in the freezer at all times, and am always ready to make ice cream.

It's super easy to use. You make the custard on the stove, then let it chill (I usually put mine in the fridge overnight). Then, you place the frozen container inside the ice cream maker, put the paddle in and the top on, and turn it on. Pour in the custard and a 20 minutes later, voila. (The ice cream's soft right from the maker, though; you have to freeze it a bit to harden it up.)

I actually have a hard time eating store-bought ice cream now. There's just nothing like the real thing.

It's also less than $75 on Amazon.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Holiday Cookies: Brown Sugar Shortbread

Okay, there's no picture for this, because I suck. You see, I made these for a Christmas party, and there was tequila, and well, yeah. No pictures.

This has to be one of my favorite recipes now, though. I love it first because nearly everything you need is already in the pantry. You don't have to make a special trip to the store or buy fancy spices. I also love it because it's pretty much a snap to make. Except for the scoring, there's nothing complicated about this recipe at all.

And the taste! These aren't "true" shortbreads, but the rich, cinnamon-brown sugar taste will make up for any lack of shortbread purity. They are soft and chewy at first, and even once they cool and crisp up, they're still rather toothsome.

Altogether, just an awesome cookie, and I recommend trying it this holiday season.

One note: the original recipe recommended cutting these into 12 wedges. I found those cookies a little too big (it's actually a very rich and buttery cookie), so I recommend cutting 16 wedges. I also find it's easier to score and cut that way.

Brown Sugar Shortbread

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed (7 ounces) light brown sugar
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 325. Lightly spray a 9-inch springform pan with nonstick cooking spray and set it on a baking sheet.

In bowl of stand mixer with paddle attachment, beat butter on medium until light and pale yellow, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add brown sugar and mix on medium until fluffy, about 1 minute. Add flour and salt and mix on low until just incorporated. Empty mixture into prepared pan, and use your hand or the bottom of a ramekin or measuring cup to press it evenly into the pan.

Combine the granulated sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl, and sprinkle evenly over the surface of the shortbread. Using a sharp knife, score the shortbread into 16 even wedges.

Bake until shortbread is golden brown and firm at the edges, but slightly soft in the center, around 55-60 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack, remove springform sides, and cool for 10 minutes. Slide shortbread onto cutting board and recut wedges along existing lines.

Cool completely before serving, about 3 hours. Shortbread can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Important: Do not skip the scoring, or wait until the shortbreads cool before trying to cut them. It will be impossible. Cut them immediately once they're baked. Also, don't try and bake these in a regular cake pan; they will be very difficult to get out.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Holiday Sugar Cookies

Traditional holiday cut-out sugar cookies are tough.

No, seriously. They're tough. As in dry and crunchy, instead of soft and tender like I fantasize they should be. I think half the recipes I've seen must be designed to hang on the tree and not to eat. Or they should have been.

They also suck to roll out.

I went looking for the perfect Holiday cookie recipe: one that had a tender crumb, was easy to roll out, took a glaze well and was, above all, yummy.

I think I found it with this one.

These cookies are a little thin, and as with all cookie cutter cookies, they're a bit of a project. But very worth it. I was surprised to find the cookies actually tasted better the next day, even after being glazed. I have no idea how they are on the third day; none of ours lasted that long.

The glaze freaked me out a bit, because there was no egg or the usual royal icing-type ingredients. And who puts cream cheese in cookie glaze?

But it really works.

Oh, and did you know that cookie cutters have two sides, and you cut out cookies with the thick one? I didn't.

Here's the recipe:

Holiday Cookies

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup superfine (or baker's) sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and softened
2 tablespoons cream cheese, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Whisk the flour, sugar, and salt together into your mixer bowl. In an electric mixer on medium-low speed, beat the butter into the flour mixture, one piece at a time. Continue to beat the flour-butter mixture until it looks crumbly and slightly wet, 1 to 2 minutes.

Beat in the cream cheese and vanilla until the dough just begins to form large clumps, about 30 seconds. Knead the dough by hand in the bowl a few times until it forms a large, cohesive mass.

Transfer the dough to a clean counter and divide it into 2 even pieces. Press each piece into a 4-inch disk, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until the dough is firm yet malleable, about 30 minutes.

Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll it out between 2 large sheets of parchment to an even 1/8 inch thickness. With the dough sandwiched between the parchment, slide it onto a baking sheet, and refrigerate until firm, about 10 minutes.

Adjust an oven rack to the middle, and heat the oven to 375. Line two more baking sheets with parchment.

Working with one sheet of dough at a time, remove the top parchment and stamp out cookies with cookie cutters. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet with a thin metal spatula, spaced about 1 inch apart.

Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, until light golden brown, about 10 minutes, rotating halfway. Let cool in the baking sheet for 3 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before glazing.

Holiday Cookie Glaze

2 cups powdered sugar
3 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons softened cream cheese

Whisk all of the ingredients together until smooth. Color with food coloring, if you'd like.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

TWD: The World's Ugliest Sables

Okay, that's not the name of this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe. It's just plain "Sables". And it's certainly not Dorie Greenspan's fault that they're ugly. It's mine.

See what I mean?

Poor little sable. He's supposed to be all round and crisp and sugar-coated. Instead he just kind of looks ... eh. Sad.

Fortunately for him (or unfortunately, I guess, as long as I'm anthropomorphizing), he was delicious.

Sables, for those who don't know, are a French butter cookie, similar in many ways to shortbread. Except better. The dough is mixed up, rolled into a log and chilled, and then rolled in sugar, sliced and baked. The big issue is that you can't overmix sables if you want to get that sandy texture they're famous for.

And therein lay my downfall.

I was so freaked out about not overmixing that I undermixed. It can happen to the best of us, I guess. I didn't realize how badly I'd undermixed until I spied lumps of flour in the dough as I was rolling it into a log. At that point, it was a little too late, so I soldiered on. Unfortunately, the dough was so crumbly that, even after chilling, it fell apart. There was no hope of coating it in raw sugar, like I'd planned. I managed to get a few nice slices (which baked up looking close to real sables), but the rest...oy. I just smashed them together and hoped for the best.

But boy, were they tasty. And their texture was perfect. So, I'm pretty sure if I didn't do the freak-out undermixing thing, they would be great.

I just didn't get to test that theory before it was time to post for TWD. So, you get ugly sables. Sorry.

If you want to see what real sables look like (and get the recipe), head to Bungalow Barbara's blog.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Holiday Appetizer: Sausage Balls

Pretty much any party you go to in the South, you find sausage balls. These little balls of awesomeness (or breakfast sausage, cheese and biscuit mix - same thing) were the first "grownup" appetizer I ever had. Granted, lots of things that seem all sophisticated and fancy when you're young don't have that same appeal when you actually are a grownup.

These sausage balls are an exception. I've never made them when they weren't just snapped right off the tray.

The recipe is pretty much as basic as they come: Bisquik, bulk sausage and shredded cheese. You can change the flavor of sausage (maple vs. hot, for instance) or the type of cheese (cheddar is traditional), but at the end of the day, it's just those three things, mixed up, rolled into balls and plopped in the oven.

Now, two hints on sausage balls:

1.) Mix them by hand. Yes, I know it's gross. But trust me on this one. Take off your rings and mix the "dough" by hand. A spoon or spatula just makes a huge mess, so dig in.

2.) Serve them hot. This is where I differ from a lot of Southern cooks, and also why everyone says my sausage balls are the best. Because a lot of Southern cooks make these up ahead of time and serve them at room temperature. I like to make the dough ahead (even putting the balls on a baking sheet, if I have space in the fridge), and then put them in the oven once guests arrive. That way, the cheese is still melty and everything's hot when you bite into them. Much better. Plus, the whole kitchen smells of sausage.

(Granted, you can totally make these ahead and serve them at room temperature. Yours just won't be as good as mine. So there.)

Southern Sausage Balls

1 1-pound package ground breakfast sausage (plain or flavored - I personally like Maple)
3 cups Bisquik baking mix
4 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese

Heat the oven to 375, and spray two baking sheets with cooking spray. Using your hands, mix all ingredients together in a (really) large bowl. You'll have to work it, but understand that it will still be pretty crumbly. Form the mixture into 1-inch balls and place on your baking sheets. Bake until golden brown, 18-20 minutes. To keep them from sticking, you may want to move them a bit with a spatula about halfway through cooking.

Note: The dough can be made ahead and refrigerated, tightly covered. When you're ready to make the sausage balls, let it sit for a few minutes, then form the balls like you would normally.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Blind Side

Everyone who knows me knows I'm not into chick flicks. I don't like silly comedies. I'm not into schmoopy tearjerkers, and I laughed all the way through The Notebook. (Gawd, people. Seriously?)

Anyway, basically, if a movie doesn't contain blood, monsters, soldiers, action, swords or zombies - or some combination thereof - I'm not usually interested.

Except when I am.

You see, there are times in life where what you need is really not legions of zombies bent on destroying humanity, or a creature from space running amok in New York City (as awesome that is.)

What you need is inspiration. What you need is hope - to feel that maybe humanity isn't completely worthless after all.

Fortunately, possibly because of the economy, Hollywood seems to have gotten that message, and they're offering several feel-good movies this holiday season. Since most of them revolve around sports, I feel better about my need to soothe my psyche with them.

First up was The Blind Side.

This is based on the true story of Michael Oher, who has just been signed as a rookie with the Baltimore Ravens. He was a homeless teen in Tennessee who was taken in by a wealthy white family who helped him succeed in school and football, and eventually became his legal guardians.

Sandra Bullock plays the mom in this story, and she's absolutely pitch perfect. First of all, she has the accent down (I think she's actually Southern) and she definitely has the look for it. (Lord, she's pretty.) But it's more than that...

How easy would it have been for this story to become about white guilt? How hard is it to show a mother and a family who have a lot of money, and who are still healthy and whole and like to be together? Think about it - most of the time, white, well-t0-do people are one-dimensional and shallow. Her Leigh Anne Touhey is certainly bold and a little brash, but she is so deep. She takes Michael in not because she feels some obligation to, or maybe she does at first - but she asks him to stay because she truly grows to love him.

Michael, also, is deep and multi-dimensional. The teachers at the exclusive Christian school he attends at first treat him like he's retarded. He's not; not at all. He's very smart, he just has never learned to learn. Watching him open up as he warms up to his new family is truly touching.

In a way, the movie's almost too perfect. It's a little hard to believe that everything fell into place just so for this young man, and that he just happened to find a family who truly loves him and sees him as a part of their family.

And yet that's exactly what happened.

And that's why it's so inspiring. Because you know what? Sometimes good things do happen. A lot of times they don't, but they can. They really can.

And at Christmastime, especially this year, that's a good lesson to be reminded of.

See The Blind Side. I don't think you'll regret it.

Note: Please note that this movie opens with a replay of Washington Redskins' quarterback Joe Theismann breaking his leg. This is one of the worst, most painful-to-watch injuries in all of sports. It makes total sense why they did it in context of the movie (and they actually tie back to it at the very end in a great way), but just be prepared.

Next up in the inspirational holiday sports-movie lineup: Invictus.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Yule Goat!

Behold my favorite Christmas decoration ever: the Yule Goat!

I picked him up a couple of years ago at IKEA, which is appropriate, since the Yule Goat (or Yule Buck, or "Julbok") is a distinctly Nordic tradition. Being Swiss means I'm not actually Nordic, but when it comes to being able to stick a big straw goat on my table and call it Christmas, I make an exception.

The Yule Buck originated in pagan times, presumably tied to the god Thor, whose chariot was pulled by two strong goats. There are lots of "Yule bucking" traditions that involve blackface, pretending to slaughter one of your neighbors, and cake. I'm not real clear on how they all fit together, but you can look at this Wikipedia entry for more info.

In many towns in Sweden, they erect a giant Yule goat in the town square, and see if it can survive until Christmas before vandals burn it down. (Pretty sure that wasn't the original intention of the tradition, but that's how it's turned out.) The vandals get REALLY creative, and so do the towns in trying to prevent the torching.

The most famous of these is the city of Gavle, which has had a goat for years, and has about a 50% record of reaching Christmas versus early firey death. One of Gavle's fire-prevention methods has turned into one of my absolute favorite personal Christmas traditions. I bring you...


Yes, the Gavle Goat has its very own webcam! (Plus, the word "bockenkamera" is right up there with "wunderbar" as the coolest non-English words EVAR.)
He's also got his own blog, written in his own voice. It's not as cool as his goofy webcam, though.

It's one of those 1998-style ones, too, where it refreshes every few seconds. ("Look, the blue car moved!") I don't know what it is about this thing, but I am mesmerized by it every year. I keep it on my screen at work and keep refreshing the page - because, of course, the more we watch the better the Goat's chances of making it to Christmas sans arson.

We're watching you, goat burners...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Chicken Bog

Despite the goofy name, Chicken Bog is one of the most solid recipes in my repertoire. It's the dish I make when I need something warm, comforting, and a lot of it.

Chicken Bog is a southeastern, lowlands dish, from what I can tell. At its heart, it's just chicken, rice and sausage. I love it for two main reasons:

A.) It's super easy. You don't even have to brown anything, just throw it all in a pot and let it simmer away.

B.) It makes enough to, as we say back home, "feed General Lee's army". In other words - it makes a lot. A whole lot. The main recipe basically fills my dutch oven. Bailey and I can eat off a pot of Chicken Bog for a week.

And sure, you can halve the recipe, but it keeps really well in the fridge. It's one of those things I make when I have a lot of people to feed, or when I need to have something easy and quick at hand. (It sure beats pizza when I'm busy prepping for a big meal like Thanksgiving.)

Here's the recipe:

Chicken Bog

3 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 pound smoked link sausage (I use kielbasa), cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup chopped onion
1 stick butter
Seasonings to taste - black pepper, seasoned salt, Cajun spices, etc.
3 bay leaves
8 cups water
3 cups rice

Put chicken, sausage, onion, butter, seasonings and bay leaves into a stock pot or dutch oven. Add the water, bring to a boil, then lower the heat until the water is at a low boil. Cover and cook until chicken is cooked through and tender, about 40 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot; when cool enough to handle, shred into bite size pieces.

Note: I like to test the cooking liquid at this point for seasoning, before I put in the rice. Remember that you're seasoning a pot full of rice, so don't be timid here.

Add the rice to the pot and bring to a boil, then boil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until rice is done (remembering to give it an occasional stir) - about 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaves and return the chicken to the pot.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's Christmas Time!

After two post-Thanksgiving, leftover-stuffed days of "I'm just not feeling this Christmas thing", it hit me all at once today.

I ended up going out to see the new version of "A Christmas Carol", which I found thoroughly enjoyable, even though it's the same story we've heard/seen a thousand times. The animation and the 3D actually make it worth seeing, even if you can recite Scrooge's lines by heart (which I can). 3D is getting better and better, and there were no tricks and gimmicks in this movie - just an immersive feeling of actually being IN Dickens' London. It's really gorgeous.

And despite the fact that this is ostensibly a cartoon, you recognize most of the actors - not just Jim Carrey as Scrooge, but Gary Oldman (as Bob Cratchit, no less), Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, etc., etc.

Definitely consider going if you need a little push in the "Christmas spirit" direction.

And a nice eggnog latte from Starbucks (my first - and probably only - of the season) doesn't hurt either.

Once home, I kicked on my Irish Christmas music and began to get out my Christmas china and decorations. I don't think I'm doing a tree this year; haven't decided, but it seems like a lot of trouble since I won't be home Christmas day. But we'll see. I will get a wreath, at minimum.

But I trotted out the Yule Buck (more about him later), set up my snow village, hung stockings, and filled the hurricane lantern on the coffee table with glittery pine cones.

It's definitely starting to feel like Christmas around here.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

My day was just too busy - and my stomach too full - to take many pictures today. But if my awesome Thanksgiving could be summed up in one image, this is it:

The gang, contemplating a grey sea, right after dinner.

And now that Thanksgiving is (nearly) over, here's a little something to get you into the spirit of the next winter holiday:

Stella Claus says: "OH, HAI!"

I hope your Thanksgiving day was as great as mine, and you got to spend it appreciating all the people you love. Who could ask for more?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Countdown: Wednesday

Wednesday is the big cooking day, where I put most dishes together to go into the oven on Thursday morning.

Here's what I did:

1. Brined the turkey.

2. Picked up the pies. I got a pumpkin pie and a chess pie, which is the closest thing to pecan pie that the bakeries around here make. If I ever break down and make my own pies, it'll be because I can't get pecan any other way. Anyhoo...

3. Froze the vanilla ice cream. Too bad I didn't think to take pictures. It always looks so cool when it's churning.

4. Finished the gravy.
Altogether, it took me the better part of a day - spread out over yesterday and today - to finish off the gravy. On the plus side, that's my pretty orange Le Creuset dutch oven, absolutely brimming with gravy. There'll be no shortage of gravy in my house, people.

5. Made the stuffing.
I made two pans: one with sausage and one without. I'll pop them in the oven when the turkey comes out. I take several shortcuts with my stuffing, including using packaged breadcrumbs, and this cool package of fresh onions, celery and herbs, already chopped. Sure, I've made my own from scratch before, but it's a lot of trouble, and it really isn't all that much better than this way. So, I save myself some trouble and people still love it.

6. Assembled the casseroles.
First, there's my mom's famous candied yams (or sweet potato casserole, take your pick of names - it's all delicious).

Then, good ole green bean casserole, complete with french fried onions.

7. Made dough for sausage balls.
These will be the only appetizer tomorrow. I don't usually do apps with such a big meal, but a while back I had a party where I served these. One of the guests, D, was on a restricted diet at the time, and couldn't eat them. She told me she's thought of them ever since. So, they're on the menu for her tomorrow.

I made the dough and will pop them in the oven when the guests arrive. Fortunately, the recipe (which I'll post soon) makes a ton, so I made some for Bailey and I tonight.

8. Set the table.
More specifically, watched Bailey set the table. It's her one job every year, and as you can see, she tackles it with artistic flair.

9. Took a walk along the seawall at sunset.
If I needed a reminder of everything I have to be thankful for, this was it...

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Make-Ahead Turkey Gravy

This is a dark, rich - almost brown - gravy. It can be made up to three days in advance; I usually make it on Tuesday. If you make it prior to your frozen turkey thawing out (which I usually do), you can usually procure turkey necks or extra turkey gizzards at the butcher's. Just substitute those for what you'd pull out of your turkey.

Last year after Thanksgiving, I made turkey stock from the turkey carcass, and froze it. I substituted that this year for the chicken stock, and I have to say so far that the taste is really worth it. But regular chicken stock will certainly do.

Make-Ahead Gravy

Reserved turkey giblets, neck and backbone, hacked into 2-inch pieces*
1 medium carrot, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 rib celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 small onions, chopped coarse
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 cups dry white wine
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place turkey trimmings, carrot, celery, onions, and garlic in large roasting pan. Spray lightly with cooking spray and toss to combine. Roast, stirring every 10 minutes, until well-browned: 40-50 minutes.

Place roasting pan over burner on high; add chicken stock and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits on bottom of pan.

Transfer contents of roasting pan to dutch oven. Add wine, 3 cups of water, and thyme; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until reduced by half, about 1 1/2 hours. Strain stock into another container, and cool to room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until fat congeals, at least 1 hour. (Note: I usually do this on Tuesday and put it in the fridge overnight, then finish the gravy on Wednesday.)

To finish, skim fat from stock and reserve. Pour stock into another saucepan through a fine-mesh strainer and discard any solids. Bring stock to a simmer over medium-high heat. In a second saucepan, heat four tablespoons turkey fat (note: I use a little butter if I don't have enough fat) until bubbling; whisk in flour and cook, whisking constantly, until combined and honey-colored, about 2 minutes. Continuing to whisk constantly, add hot stock by the ladleful, then reduce the heat to medium low. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

Note: Gravy can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Reheat in a medium saucepan over medium heat until hot - about 8 minutes.

*Honestly, I don't usually bother with the hacking part. I throw the trimmings in whole and it comes out fine.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Countdown: Tuesday

Tuesday is when the real pre-work for the Thanksgiving feast begins. I do a lot of prepping of dishes that will need to be finished over the next few days: making stocks, custards, etc.

Here's what I worked on today:

1. Prepared the stock for the gravy.
I make my turkey gravy ahead of time, which saves a whole lot of stress on Thanksgiving morning. A lot of people marvel at that, but it's actually pretty easy. I roast some turkey necks and parts I buy frozen with some basic vegetables (carrots, celery, onions, etc.). Then, I combine them with water and white wine and cook that down into a stock. I then use the stock as a base for the gravy. It's time-consuming, but again, worth it not to have to stand over a hot stove at the last minute, frantically stirring a roux.

(And yes, I double the recipe. I like gravy.)

2. Made fresh cranberry sauce.
I use the Pioneer Woman's recipe. And yes, I still buy the stuff in the can, because some people just have to have it. But this stuff is amazing. Plus, it looks pretty packed in a Mason jar and set on the table.

3. Made custard for vanilla ice cream.
I don't really do pies (never been too good at it), and with a great bakery just down the street, why would I? I let them handle dessert, and my stress levels go down accordingly. However, good as their pumpkin pie is, it's even better with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream. And since I can do it ahead of time, it's easy to add to the menu.

I made the custard tonight to chill overnight. I'll freeze the ice cream in the morning.

4. Started the turkey brine.
I brine my turkey, which makes it really moist and flavorful. I've heard brining is becoming passe, and everyone salts their turkeys now. Whatever. To me, nothing gets the kind of flavor into the meat the way brine does. I used to make my own solution, but I fell in love with Williams-Sonoma's last year. You add apple cider to the mix while the turkey brines, and then stuff the turkey cavity with apples. Heaven.

After boiling the brine, it needs to come to room temperature and then chill, so I do it the day before I want to brine the turkey (which is the day before I want to roast it). So, I did that tonight.

I also cleaned the house a bit, and made a trip to Michael's for table decorations. I got a lot accomplished, but have a long Wednesday ahead to finish everything in time.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving Countdown: Monday

Today, I:

  1. Bought groceries. I stocked up on everything I'd need for the meal, including fresh cranberries and turkey necks (for the gravy). Of course, Thanksgiving would not be complete unless you forgot something; I have to go back tomorrow for onions.
  2. Organized my kitchen cabinets. No one will see this but me, of course, but it's easier for me mentally to cook that much if my cabinets are organized.
  3. Tracked down my baking and serving dishes. I'm missing one bowl and need to buy a couple of more glasses. A Target run seems in order.
  4. Set the frozen stock out to thaw. It's all homemade stock - some chicken and some turkey that I made with the remains of last year's Thanksgiving turkey.
  5. Cooked dinner for the week. I always feel bad for cooking non-stop for two days straight, and then being too tired to make Bailey dinner. So, tonight, I made a huge pot of Chicken Bog (an easy chicken, sausage and rice dish - I'll post the recipe soon). That will give her something warm and tasty to have while I'm getting the main meal ready.
Tomorrow the real work begins...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving Countdown: Sunday

Over the next few days, I'll be documenting my crazy pre-Thanksgiving prep in all its glory. Here is what I accomplished today:

1.) Put the turkey in the fridge to thaw. And yes, that's the $7 Safeway frozen turkey, and not a fancy-schmancy expensive fresh organic one. And you know what? I am not ashamed!! You see, last year, I was in the grocery store right before Thanksgiving, and ran into the chef at my favorite local restaurant - and he was buying this turkey for his own family Thanksgiving. If it's good enough for him, it's darn sure good enough for me.

2.) Made my grocery list. Or, more specifically, my grocery spreadsheet. Yes. I have a spreadsheet. It lists every dish I'm making, the ingredients and amounts, and the timing of when I'm cooking it.

Tomorrow, I'll be buying all the groceries I need, gathering up all my serving and baking dishes, and getting the house ready.

Holiday Recipe Testing Day

Every good cook or baker knows you don't try a new recipe for the first time on a special occasion, so Risey and I got together for what I hope is a new annual tradition: the Holiday Recipe Test.

The concept is simple: we each picked a new recipe we wanted to try or technique we wanted to practice (in our case, both - she wanted to learn piping while I tried my hand at glazing sugar cookies). With ingredients and equipment in hand, B and I trekked over to Risey's house, where she'd made a fantastic vegan brunch (with bacon just for Bailey). After brunch, Bailey camped out on the couch with her computer, Risey turned on some Christmas music to get us in the mood, and her kitchen exploded in flour and sprinkles.

Here are some pictures from the afternoon:

Lovely Risey, measuring out ingredients for her vegan Mocha Cupcakes.

That's my disembodied hand, cutting butter into flour a piece at a time.

The glory that was Risey's Mocha Cupcakes. Note the different piping styles.

Risey and I, very focused on glazing sugar cookies.

Still life of half-decorated sugar cookies.

Ignore my parti-colored finger. Had some trouble with the food coloring.

Risey looked at this and said, "That's KIND of a good idea."

Well, it was a better idea than her tree decorated with red lips.

This is from Risey's "Blob Period".

Bailey and Sweet Boy, happily ignoring the commotion in the kitchen.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Cake People

I love where I work.
(And I will explain what the above shot of cake has to do with that in just a second - don't be alarmed.)

I know how lucky I am to be able to say that; so many people don't. (And I haven't in the past.) Part of it is just that I love my actual job, I'm good at it, and it's a good environment to work in. But mostly, it's the people. There are some great people who work there, and who make it a pleasure to go in every day. Fortunately for me, some of those people have become true friends - in and out of the office.

Those friends are what I call "The Cake People." These are the people who are so high up on my list that I would put myself through the ninth Circle of Hades - i.e., bake a birthday cake - for them.

See, baking a birthday cake to bring to the office is a royal pain in the ass. First, there's remembering their birthday (no mean feat - ask my mom, who gets birthday wishes every March 3rd, then reminds me that her birthday is May 3rd.), then remembering to borrow the cake taker. Then there's the shopping. Then, I bake the layers the night before, wrap them and place them aside to cool. Then, I get up at 5am the day the cake is due, make the frosting, fill and decorate the cake.

Then I pack it up in my borrowed cake taker (why don't I have one of these, Bueller?), and schlep it all the way into the city on the bus. THEN, I get to walk ten minutes from my bus stop to the office, past about 100 people who think they're uniquely funny when they say "Can I help you with that?!"

I really, really have to like you to bake you a birthday cake.

Well, one of my friends at work is someone I really, really like apparently: I call him The Russian. Even though he's Ukrainian. And over the past few months of patient translation of Russian movie trailers and shared soccer fervor, The Russian has clawed his way to Cake Person status.

Behold, The Russian's birthday cake:

The Russian is apparently broken and doesn't like chocolate (didn't realize those people existed), so he requested something with fruit, preferably raspberry. Therefore, I made him Dorie Greenspan's Perfect Party Cake: a buttermilk cake scented with lemon sugar, and frosted with a lemon-flavored Swiss meringue buttercream frosting. Inside, I brushed the layers with raspberry jam before filling them with the buttercream, then added a ring of raspberries to the top.

It went over a storm, and The Russian seemed genuinely happy with his cake. He kept it in his cube until the whole row smelled like lemon, and growled at anyone who got too close. In the end, he did share it, and we all pretty much made ourselves sick on it. One girl declared she "doesn't like cake" - and proceeded to have two slices.

See the hand in this picture? That belongs to a guy in the office who was slowly working his way into the rarified Cake Person stratosphere. Then, while devouring my masterpiece, he pointed out that he didn't actually have to make me like him enough to become a Cake Person. He just had to make friends with the other Cake People, and then he'd get their cake.

Guess who is never going to become a Cake Person?

Anyway, here's the recipe:

Perfect Party Cake

For the Cake

2 ¼ cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups whole milk or buttermilk (I prefer buttermilk with the lemon)
4 large egg whites
1 ½ cups sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon pure lemon extract

For the Buttercream

1 cup sugar
4 large egg wites
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 large lemons)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For Finishing

2/3 cup seedless raspberry preserves, stirred vigorously or warmed gently until spreadable
About 1 ½ cups sweetened shredded coconut

Getting Ready: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter two 9-x-2 inch round cake pans and line the bottom of each with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

To Make the Cake: Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Whisk together the milk and egg whites in a medium bowl.

Put the sugar and lemon zest in a mixer bowl or another large bowl and rub them together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter, and working with the paddle or whisk attachment, or with a hand mixer, beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the butter and sugar are very light. Beat in the extract, then add one third of the flour mixture, still beating on medium speed. Beat in half of the milk-egg mixture, then beat in half of the remaining dry ingredients until incorporated. Add the rest of the milk and eggs, beating until the batter is homogeneous, then add the last of the dry ingredients. Finally, give the batter a good 2-minute beating to ensure that it is thoroughly mixed and will aerated. Divide the batter between the two pans and smooth the tops with a rubber spatula.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the cakes are well risen and springy to the touch- a thin knife inserted into the centers should come out clean. Transfer the cakes to cooling racks and cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cakes, unmold them and peel off the paper liners. Invert and cool to room temperature right side up. (The cooled cake layers can be wrapped airtight and stored at room temperature overnight or frozen for up to 2 months.)

To Make the Buttercream: Put the sugar and egg whites in a mixer bowl or other large heatproof bowl, fit the bowl over a pan of simmering water and whisk constantly, keeping the mixture over the heat, until it feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture will look like shiny marshmallow cream. Remove the bowl from the heat.

Working with the whisk attachment or with a hand mixer, beat the meringue on medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes. Switch to the paddle attachment if you have one, and add the butter a stick at a time, beating until smooth. Once all the butter is in, beat the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth, 6 to 10 minutes. During this time, the buttercream may curdle or separate-just keep beating and it will come together again. On medium speed, gradually beat in the lemon juice, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more, and then the vanilla. You should have a shiny, smooth, velvety, pristine white buttercream. Press a piece of plastic against the surface of the buttercream and set aside briefly.

To Assemble the Cake: Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each layer horizontally in half. Put one layer cut side up on a cardboard cake round or a cake plate protected by strips of wax or parchment paper. Spread it with one third of the preserves. Cover the jam evenly with about one quarter of the buttercream. Top with another layer, spread with preserves and buttercream and then do the same with a third layer (you’ll have used all the jam and have buttercream left over). Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake and use the remaining buttercream to frost the sides and top. Press the coconut into the frosting, patting it gently all over the sides and top.

Makes 12 to 14 servings