Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Northward Bound

For those of you who don't know, Hubband and I are spending Thanksgiving up north, in the New England states where we grew up. Turkey will be consumed with my extended family in Massachusetts, and then we will spend the weekend with Hubband's family in Connecticut. We are lucky to be able to fly up and spend this time with family, and we look forward to it every year. 
I will take some photos of the spread this year; even though I don't get to do any Thanksgiving cookery (gasp!) I can still share a little of our experience, which is somewhat unique. 
Things will be quiet here while we're gone, but I wanted to leave you with a little sampling of just a few of the things for which I'm most thankful this year. 

Friends. Old ones, new ones, 'real life' and blog friends, thank you for being in our lives. You are all greatly appreciated and loved.

Family. From grandfather to young niece and everyone between, we are grateful for your presence in our lives and everything you have contributed to who we are. We are thankful for your health and happiness. 

Moments and Memories. There have been so many this year: our first wedding anniversary, our amazing Alaska trip, Chicago and every day at home together. There have been so many moments this year that we were blessed to have experienced, and I'm so grateful for the opportunities. 

Humphrey. It may seem silly to be so thankful for our pup, but he means the world to us. He reminds me to be patient and find to joy in little things. He's always willing to play a game or give a cuddle, and never fails to bring a smile to our faces.

Last, but never least, Hubband. He is my best friend and my love, and he has been so supportive of this blogging adventure, as well as so many other things. He makes me happier than I thought would ever be possible, and I'm grateful for him every day, not just the last Thursday in November.

Monday, November 24, 2008


I hear so many people say that they "can't" cook, or that a recipe is "too difficult" or "too intimidating". It makes me a little sad to hear that, because I want everyone to have as much fun as I do. I will try to cook any recipe you put in front of me. Do I always cross my fingers that it will work and be tasty? Yes. But if it doesn't, it's just a learning experience, and next time will be better. I've had many failures and mediocre dishes, but I'm never intimidated, and I'm always having fun. I feel like I've seen people get so stressed about a recipe or a technique, and they don't understand when I tell them, 'No, I didn't have a recipe, I made this up', or that I got my idea from a recipe but then changed it to suit myself. They don't understand how I can do it.
Here's a step-by-step example of how I take a recipe, and tweak it.
The recipe itself was for a Caramelized Onion and Prosciutto Bread Pudding. I will post the original recipe and instructions, and insert my changes and reasons in parentheses, to show the process.

Caramelized Onion and Prosciutto Bread Pudding (Caramelized Onion and Bacon Bread Pudding)

10 oz day-old country-style bread, cut into 3/4" cubes, with crust (10 oz 3-day old mini baguettes leftover from the neighborly party earlier in the week, cubed.)
2 1/2 C milk (2 1/2 C skim milk, it's what I had)
2 C heavy cream (1 C heavy cream, 1 C half & half, because that's what I had)
3 garlic cloves, crushed with the side of a knife (3 BIG cloves, mmm garlic)
1/2 tsp Cyprus flake salt (Sorry, W & S, I used some grey sea salt. Why? Because...that's what I had! Does anyone see a pattern here?)
Coarsely ground tellicherry pepper, to taste
1 Tbs unsalted butter (unnecessary, due to later pork substitutions and their accompanying fat.)
1 red onion, thinly sliced (This is what I used, but next time, I'll do a coarse dice for ease of eating.)
2 Tbs balsamic vinegar (2 Tbs sherry vinegar, because I'm mildly obsessed with it lately, and it's delicious with bacon.)
8 eggs
2 C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (Holy expensive cheese Batman! I subbed in a mix of aged gruyere and some plain Chevre. Mmm, tangy and economical.)
2 oz thinly sliced prosciutto, cut into 2 x 1/4 " strips (4 slices thick cut smoky bacon, plus 2 oz homemade pancetta, because I'm on a mission to clean out my freezer.)
2 Tbs chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (Picked from our patio garden, supplemented with 1 tsp fresh thyme, because thyme is one of my favorites, and is delicious with pork products.)

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 2 qt rectangular baking dish. (Nonstick spray, you make life easier.) Have a pot of boiling water ready. (I spent too much time reading blogs that day, and was mildly rushed. I skipped over the boiling water step as I read. More on this later.) Put the bread cubes in a large bowl and set aside.
In a saucepan over medium heat, combine milk, cream, garlic, salt, and pepper and heat until bubbles form around the edges of the pan. (Combine the hodgepodge of dairy that was already in your fridge with garlic, salt and pepper.) Remove from heat and let stand for 30 minutes. (Think to yourself: Hmm, I'm steeping garlic in milk, like tea. I'm making a garlic-milk tea. Ha. Ew. Garlic-milk-tea.) Meanwhile, in a saute pan over medium heat, melt the butter. (Instead, place the bacon into a medium saute pan and cook until browned and crisp, then remove to paper towels, reserving the fat in the pan. Place finely chopped pancetta in the reserved fat, brown, then remove to paper towels, reserving the fat in the pan. Use this fat in place of butter.) Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to brown and caramelize, about 10 minutes. (Think about nominating onions-cooking-in-bacon-fat for best smell in the world.) Add the vinegar and cook for 5 minutes more. (Stirring often.) Remove from the heat. Return the milk mixture to medium heat and warm until bubbles form around the edge of the pan. (Or completely miss this step until you re-read the recipe while typing it. The milk was still plenty hot, trust me.) In a bowl, lightly whisk the 8 eggs. Slowly add the hot milk mixture, whisking constantly. Set a fine mesh strainer over the bowl filled with bread cubes, and pour the milk mixture through it, onto the bread. Stir to combine. Let stand for 10 minutes, then fold in the cheese, prosciutto, parsley, and caramelized onion. Transfer to prepared baking dish. (Greet your Hubband, who has come home during this 10 minutes. Feel rushed, because you want to show him the new patio furniture that arrived that day, so mix the parsley, thyme, chopped bacon, pancetta, and onions in with the bread quickly, and transfer to the dish. Go outside to ooh and ahh over patio furniture. Come back in and realize you forgot to put in the cheese. Use your clean fingers to push cheese chunks in at random spots and depths around the baking dish.) Set the baking dish in a roasting pan. Add the boiling water to fill the roasting pan halfway up the sides of the baking dish. (Ask your Hubband to put the baking dish in the oven because your hands are now covered in eggy-cheesy-parsley bits from your non-traditional method of adding cheese. Neglect to remember the whole water-bath thing until you're eating. There was no pot of boiling water to remind you anyway*. *See beginning of recipe.) Bake until the center of the pudding is firm and the top is golden, about 50 minutes. Transfer to a wire baking rack and let cool for at least 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

This is what we ended up with:
It was SO good. Even with all of my substitutions and technique mistakes, dinner was delicious. Crusty on top and soft in the middle, savory and delicate in flavor, the bread pudding was so satisfying with a green salad. This wouldn't be out of place on a holiday table, in my opinion.
A note: This was a particularly egregious example of me not reading the instructions very closely. When I'm baking, I do read more closely because of the precision needed for proper results, but savory cooking is a little more forgiving. As far as playing with the ingredients, there was nothing wrong with the recipe as written, but everything I substituted with was already in my fridge, freezer, pantry, or patio garden, and thus I saved myself a trip to the store.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Making Whoopie

Saturday afternoon Mom hosted an impromptu get-together at her house, attended by her neighbors T & P, my neighbors B & W, neighborhood friend A, myself, and Hubband. The original reason was to show her back yard to B & W, who have an interest in gardening, and drink a little wine, but of course Mom and I decided that we should have some little things to nibble. We then realized that late afternoon was getting close to dinner, so maybe we should just throw together a few things and make a casual party out of it. (Funny how we can turn any little visit into a reason to cook!) 
We got through planning an easy menu that could be put together in advance, and then we got to dessert. Mom wanted to make apple pie, and I wanted to try a recipe I've had tucked away for almost a year now: Pumpkin Whoopie Pies! Of course, we made both.
I found this recipe on CI's website about a year ago, as I browsed around for something else. Originally submitted by Robin Smith, of Berryville, VA, it won CI's 2005 Holiday Cookie Contest. I tweaked the dough part of the recipe just a little, and used a variation of my favorite cream cheese frosting to fill them. 
They turned out great! The cakes were incredibly moist and airy, with a good crumb. The tang of the not-too-sweet frosting really played well with the pumpkin, and they were a big hit with everyone who tried them. These are definitely going "in the book"*. 
Pumpkin Whoopie Pies
adapted from Robin Smith

Makes 16-18 whoopie pies. 

1 (15 oz) can pumpkin puree (NOT pumpkin pie mix)
2 large eggs
3/4 C vegetable oil
1 C granulated sugar
1 C light brown sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
4 C all-purpose flour
1 Tb + 1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt


4 Tb unsalted butter, softened
5 oz cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 tsp pure vanilla extract
8 oz confectioner's sugar
2 tsp heavy cream

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees F. Line two large baking sheets (preferably without sides) with parchment paper or silicone mats. In a large bowl, stir together the pumpkin puree, eggs, oil, sugars, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg until incorporated. In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt). Add the dry ingredients to the wet mix and stir until well combined. 
Using a tablespoon measure, drop two tablespoons of dough, one on top of the other, onto the prepared baking sheet. Spread the dough out gently, using the back of a spoon, into a round about 2 inches across. Try to create an even thickness. Repeat until baking sheet is full with dough rounds spaced about 2 inches apart. Bake until the cookies are just set and the bottoms are lightly browned, 10-14 minutes. Halfway through the baking time, rotate the baking sheets back to front and top to bottom for even cooking. Slide cookies, still on parchment, off of the baking sheet and onto a cooling rack. Repeat process with remaining dough. 
Filling: In a stand mixer, combine the butter and cream cheese and mix on low speed with the paddle attachment. Scrape down the sides and add the vanilla and confectioner's sugar. Continue to mix, scraping down sides as necessary, until the frosting is well blended. Remove the paddle attachment, scraping it clean into the bowl, and add the whisk attachment. Whip the frosting until it is light and some air is incorporated, about 3 minutes on medium speed. As you whip, add one teaspoon of heavy cream to thin the frosting slightly. Try spreading some of the frosting on a cookie, and add the remaining teaspoon of heavy cream if you feel the frosting is too thick. Spread the frosting on half of the cookies, and top each with another. 

*When a recipe goes "in the book" it gets permanently added to my bound collection. Written on a large index card, placed in a plastic sleeve, and put in a large binder, where it patiently sits and waits to be called upon, recipes in the book are those we have tried and loved. 

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Planning, Shmanning.

Do you ever look around and wonder "Where did today go?" You realize that while it would be nice to have dinner ready in the next hour or so, you haven't been to the store, and haven't taken anything out of the freezer? I know this has happened to you. It has, right? I can't be the only one! Just lie to me! Tell me it's happened to you too! 
Ok, I'm calm. This was one of those meals. A few weeks ago, I had one of those time-warp days, and I began to rummage in the freezer. The thought process went something like this: "Ah-hah! A pork tenderloin. A little quick-defrost and we'll be in business. Flavors? Hmmm." At this point the tenderloin gets put in to defrost while I scan the kitchen. "Ooh, got an apple. Apples are good with pork. Apple and onion...and that lonely-looking orange, I can use that too." A quick dive back into the freezer for a slice of home-cured pancetta, and I was beginning to feel like I could pull this off. 
I diced the pancetta (after another quick defrost) and relieved it of much of its precious, delicious, herb-tinged fat. Into this translucent goodness went a sliced yellow onion, and after the onions had turned golden and a little sweet, a cored, quartered, and sliced apple joined the party. Mustard seeds, pepper, and the juice of the lonely orange also jumped in the pool and happily simmered away as I sliced the pork tenderloin into medallions and seasoned them with salt and pepper. I poured the apple-onion mix into a bowl and set it aside, then seared the pork in the same pan. After both sides were browned, the apple-onion mixture was poured back in and the whole pan went in the oven for about 15 minutes, until my trusty meat thermometer said all was well. A splash of apple cider vinegar to balance the acidity, a side of broiled asapragus, and dinner was served. 
Not bad for a meal thrown together in a hurry. 

Pork Tenderloin with Apples and Onions
This dish reminds me of some sort of German or Alsatian food, and would be nice with a Riesling or other gentle white wine. If you're going to pair them, you might as well put a little of the wine into the apple-onion mix as it's cooking. Mmm. Fresh herbs like thyme or sage would also be nice additions. I use an electric oven, so change the oven technique as necessary if yours is gas. 

1 pork tenderloin, sliced into medallions, 2 1/2 " thick
1 thick slice of pancetta, about 2 oz
1 large apple (I used a Johnagold), cored, quartered, and sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
1 orange, juiced. (Feel free to add in a little of the zest as well.)
1/2 tsp yellow mustard seeds (Caraway seeds would be nice here as well, substitute as you see fit)
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 Tb apple cider vinegar

Dice the pancetta and place in a large cold skillet, then place skillet over medium heat. Render the fat and cook the pancetta until it is golden, then remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Set aside. Place the sliced onion in the skillet with the reserved pancetta fat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and beginning to turn golden. Add the apple and continue to cook. The apple will release quite a bit of juice; use this to scrape up the tasty browned fond on the bottom of the pan. As the apples are getting softer, add the mustard seeds, pepper, and orange juice (and zest, if using). Simmer for about 3 minutes, or until the apples begin to get tender. We don't want them falling apart or dissolving. Pour this mixture into a bowl and set aside. Season the pork with salt and pepper, bring the skillet up to temperature and spray with non-stick spray. Turn on the broiler in your oven. Add the pork and sear until it takes on a nice browned color, then flip and repeat. After the pork has been seared, pour the apple-onion mixture back in the pan with it and place on a rack in the lower third of the oven. We want the hot temperature of the broiler, but don't want the food to be too close to the heating element. Cook for 10-15 minutes, or until a meat thermometer registers around 155 F. The meat will continue to cook after you pull it out of the oven. Add the apple cider vinegar and reserved pancetta, stir, carefully taste, and add salt or pepper if you deem necessary. 

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Headlong into Fall

I feel I've been remiss in posting suitably autumnal recipes here. Nothing pumpkin so far, except for our jack-o-lanterns. No squashes, no chestnuts. What have I been thinking? Well, I have been cooking with these ingredients, but can you blame a girl for not posting before she thinks the recipes are really ready? I'm hoping to put up some very fall-inspired food in the coming weeks, and here's a nice pumpkin recipe to start us off. Ready? I thought so. 

This morning I was in the mood for pumpkin, so I looked around for a recipe and tweaked it a bit, and Hubband and I made some whole-grain pumpkin pancakes for breakfast. 
They turned out perfectly. Incredibly moist, soft, and fluffy, with great texture from the added grains. Filling, but not heavy, they were a fantastic way to start our morning. I hope you'll try them, because they really were a nice twist on Sunday morning pancakes. 

Whole Grain Pumpkin Pancakes
adapted from Burp! Recipes

1 C Whole wheat pastry flour (available from Bob's Red Mill, I got it at Whole Foods)
1/4 C oatmeal (I used Old Fashioned, not instant)
2 Tb yellow cornmeal
2 Tb brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp Baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg OR cloves
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 C whole milk (I used 3/4 C half & half and 3/4 C skim milk, because that's what I had.)
2/3 C pumpkin puree
1 Tb olive oil
1 large egg

Butter (for griddle)

Heat the griddle. Measure all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl, and whisk to combine. In a medium bowl, place the milk, pumpkin, olive oil, and egg, and whisk to combine. Add the wet mix to the dry ingredients, and stir just until blended. Grease a hot griddle with butter, then place batter on, by 1/4 or 1/3 cupfuls depending on how large you want your pancakes. Wait until the pancakes have bubbles on them and the edges look dry, and then flip and cook for 1-2 minutes on the other side. Serve with butter, syrup, spiced whipped cream, candied nuts, ice cream, or whatever your heart desires. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Simple Things

There's too much controversy right now. This election has brought out the best, and the worst, in so many people. The best, because voter turnout is expected to be the highest it's been in years. The worst, because of the mud-slinging, the confrontations... even in my friendly little town, political yard signs are being ripped out and tossed around in the night. I am not a confrontational person. I like it when the course is smooth, when everyone can come to a compromise. These turbulent times tire me. Do I have a candidate? Yes. Do I plan on voting this afternoon? Yes. Do I feel the need to share my political views and reasonings with you and argue if yours aren't the same? No. 
I can't wait for this election to be over. Why? Is it because I want to know if my candidate will win? No. Well, yes, but that's not the real reason. I want this election to be over because I am tired of all the repetition! I'm tired of seeing the same election commercials over and over.  (Thank goodness for DVR's!) I'm tired of seeing the predictions on my homepage when all I want is my email. I'm tired of the fliers (waste of paper and postage), the radio ads and opinions, the analysis, the t-shirts, the celebrity endorsements...I'm tired of hearing and seeing the same things every day, all day. Repetition is bad for me. I don't like repeating myself more than twice, I don't like being told something more than once, and I don't like seeing the same two faces/slogans plastered on every media outlet, lawn sign, and chest that I pass. I'm so done. 
In this mildly grumpy spirit, I made myself a breakfast that I AM willing to repeat, even though it is nothing fancy. Warm, tasty, blanketed with cheese and crunchy with broccoli, it's my old homey standby, eggs, again. 
Pretty? No. But today, when I'm preparing myself to wait in line for two hours to vote, when the sky is grey and cheerless outside, I wanted something good in my tummy. 

Crisp but tender sauteed broccoli, sweet cherry tomatoes, and pungent green onions, scrambled with two eggs and gently draped in Muenster cheese, topped with fresh black pepper and crunchy crystals of grey salt. I love the different textures, the fresh flavors of the vegetables with the mild cheese (a childhood deli favorite). 

Do you need a recipe? No. You probably already make something similar, but I wanted to share my comfort with you on a turbulent day.