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December, 2009:

The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook: Tasty Traditions

olive-filled rolls, brussels sprouts salad with roasted shallot vinaigrette, roasted turkey breast, turkey gravy, mashed potatoes with caramelized parsnips

DinnerAftermathIn retrospect it was probably not very smart to spend both Christmas Eve and Christmas laboring in the kitchen to create multi-dish meals. But the results were so good for both, I can’t really fault myself, and I did have two more weekend days to recover.

For Christmas I decided to cook from The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook. SpongeI’ve used this book before, though not for much: a guide to making pot pie, possibly a coffee cake. A number of the desserts repeat recipes in other MSL cookbooks, though since they’re good recipes it’s probably better to have several copies than to be without them. I had never made a Christmas dinner from it, despite the obvious possibilities. So I went SpongeAt24Hrsthrough it, selected some recipes, double-checked oven temperatures and timing, and replaced some recipes with others that would make for a smoother cooking day. I made a cooking plan. I looked at our side table, laden with little bags of cookies and candy, and decided not to make a separate dessert. I invited a friend to join us for the big day.

DoughToRiseThe first thing I started working on was the olive-filled rolls, specifically the sponge for the bread. I mixed a fairly small amount of yeast with warm water and let it sit about 10 minutes, until it bubbled a bit; then I added more water plus some oil and flour and mixed it all together with the dough-hook attachments for my hand mixer, transferred the mixture to an oiled bowl, BrusselsSproutsLeavescovered it with plastic wrap, and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours. The mixture was thick but soft when I put on the plastic wrap; it expanded during the incubation period, though it never overflowed the bowl as I feared it might. When I removed the plastic wrap the next morning it was a thick and springy mass. The recipe directed me to add half a cup of sponge “pulled into small ParsnipStripspieces” to the olive roll mixture, but I would have had to lay the individual pieces out separately on the counter to keep them from melding back together at once. The half-cup mass blended easily enough into a mixture of water, a bit more yeast, olive oil, flour and salt, and the dough hooks on the mixture did a quick and efficient job of transforming the ingredients into a unified and PeelingPotatoesspringy ball of dough. I had never used the hooks for bread before; I prefer to knead by hand. But at this point I knew I would need the 20 minutes or so that using the mixer would buy me. I did spend about five minutes doing a final hand-knead, then put the dough into an oiled bowl and let it rise for two and a half hours. I put the remaining sponge into the fridge; I should really freeze some of it. RoastedShallotsIt will be handy for making more bread (I think if I follow one more of the recipes calling for sponge that Martha includes, I’ll figure out what I need to know to improvise afterward).

While the dough rose I began my vegetable prep. On paper this did not look considerable, as I had only four vegetables to prep: potatoes for boiling and mashing, PotatoSlicesshallots for roasting, parsnips for roasting, and brussels sprouts. Unfortunately, the brussels sprout salad recipe requires you to separate the sprouts into individual leaves, which sounds reasonable enough until you actually start to do it. Brussels sprouts are really miniature cabbages, and those tiny little leaves take a bit of gentle persuasion to separate. I soon CaramelizedParsnips2developed a system: cut off the stem end and pull away the loosest leaves, cut off a bit more of the stem end, continue until the little core of sprout remaining was no bigger around than my little finger, leave it at that. This was tedious work, but it made for a pretty salad, and it made the peeling and slicing of potatoes seem like a snap in comparison.

ShallotDressingOnce the leaves are separated, the salad is simple: blanch the leaves in boiling salted water 1-2 minutes, then plunge them into an ice bath to stop the cooking and fix the bright color, then drain. This part moves fast, so I couldn’t really get any good pictures of it. For the dressing, I roasted the shallots whole, then peeled them and put them into a food processor with some BlanchedSproutsbalsamic vinegar and pulsed to chop them. I transferred this mixture to a bowl and whisked in some olive oil, then dressed the sprout leaves with the vinaigrette when it was time to serve dinner.

Mashed potatoes are as straightforward as you might expect: peel and slice potatoes, boil them until tender, then mash them together with milk, butter, MashedPotatoesand sour cream. The clever part is to then serve them with caramelized parsnips: parsnip sticks that have been roasted with olive oil, sugars, garlic powder, salt and pepper. The flavors go wonderfully together. The other clever part is to use the dough hook attachments to mash the potatoes, which quickly blend and mash them without overbeating or making them OliveRollsComponentsgluey or tough. Who knew?

Roasted turkey breast was pretty simple too: brush a turkey breast with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, roast it until done. I had to let the turkey breast finish early so I could raise the oven temperature to bake the rolls; when they came out, I put the turkey back in to make sure it was warm, but while it was FillingRollresting I poured the pan drippings into a saucepan to make gravy. I had never really made pan gravy before. The recipes I’ve seen always tell you to put the roasting pan on the stovetop, and I’ve never had a roasting pan that was suitable for putting on a burner. But during the roll-baking hiatus it occurred to me that since the turkey was fully cooked I could PanOfRolls2put it on the platter while I poured off the pan juices, and that it was certainly worth a try. And gravy turns out to be simple. Heat the pan juices in a skillet or saucepan; stir in some flour to make a roux (one could use cornstarch or arrowroot too), then add water or broth gradually while continuing to whisk, until the gravy reaches the desired consistency.

RollsToBake2Ah, the rolls. These were probably the most complicated recipe of the day. Once the dough had risen I divided it into 18 more-or-less equal pieces. I used my fingers to press and stretch each piece into about a rectangle about 4 by 5 inches, and spooned on a bit of olive paste (made by combining kalamata olives, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and garlic in the food processor). I BakedRollsrolled up each piece so the olive paste was sealed inside; I think the filling was supposed to spiral with the dough like a cinnamon roll, but most of them weren’t large enough for the spiral effect to be really evident. I laid the rolls together in loaf pans, nine to a pan, and let them rise once more. When it was time to preheat the oven I put an empty metal baking pan on the bottom TurkeyPlattershelf, and when I put the rolls in I poured water into the pan so it would create steam in the oven. This gave the rolls a¬† nice crusty exterior. When they were done baking, I pulled the pans from the oven, turned the segmented loaves out onto a cooling rack, and let them rest while I reheated and sliced the turkey breast and got everything else ready.

BreadPotatoesGravyThis was a lovely holiday meal. The turkey was juicy and delicious; the salad was tangy; the potatoes were rich and luxurious; and the rolls. The rolls! They were wonderful, the rich olive mixture playing off the tender bread. Even the gravy was a nice complement to both the meat and the potatoes. Our friend brought more sweets, and we had a nicely indulgent Christmas dinner.

PotPiesPlatedOh, and I used the leftovers too: On Sunday I made pie crust (also from this cookbook, as it happens), sauteed onions with celery, carrots, mushrooms and potatoes, added chunked-up turkey breast, and made a bit more gravy; I assembled all these into mini pot pies shaped in muffin pans. They turned out well, and I managed to get all but two of the little pies out of the pan without breaking them.

Verdict: Success. I’m going to have to make the rolls again, and soon. In the future I might just quarter and blanch the brussels sprouts, though it wouldn’t be as picturesque.

Curries Without Worries: Indian Food for Christmas Eve

paneer do piaza, dam aloo, cachumbar ka salad, rasmalai

IndianFoodPlated2Curries Without Worries is subtitled “an introduction to Indian cuisine,” and it’s well set up to offer that. Author Sudha Koul explains principles of Indian cooking, details both vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes, and suggests a number of set menus to try. I’ve owned this book for a while but have never used it before, so decided that I should do it up right and prepare a full RasmalaiCloseUPdinner. So for Christmas Eve we decided to make Indian food and watch “Twin Peaks.”

I started the night before by making dessert, rasmalai: ricotta cubes in cream sauce. I mixed together ricotta cheese and sugar, then baked the mixture until it was set but not browned. Once it had cooled, I cut it into squares, which I put into a glass dish. RicottaInPanThen I mixed together half-and-half, saffron, cardamom and slivered almonds, and poured the sauce over the cheese; I sprinkled on some chopped green pistachios, covered the dish with plastic wrap, and put it into the fridge. That night’s viewing: series pilot.

The next morning I started early on the paneer, a homemade PaneerCookingcheese. Paneer takes a fair amount of time to make, but not much of that is hands-on. I started by bringing some whole milk to a boil, which gave me the opportunity to learn once again that a watched pot of milk will not boil but the second you look away, sploosh! Once I’d pulled the pot off the direct heat I stirred in a mixture of whole-milk yogurt and lemon juice, which caused PaneerDrainingthe mixture to curdle; as directed, I covered the pot and left it to sit for half an hour. Then I poured the curd mixture onto a layer of cheesecloth (as in, “oh, that’s why they call it that”), rinsed it and let the bulk of the liquid drain off. The cheesecloth was showing signs of weakness at this point, so I tied up the cheese curd mass in a linen napkin and hung it above the kitchen sink for PaneerSqueezinganother 30 minutes to drain out more liquid. Then I took the cheese, still tied in its napkin, and pressed it with a weight for another half hour or so. Finally I untied the napkin and cut the paneer into cubes.

To make paneer do piaza, I fried the cheese cubes in hot oil, then set them aside while I prepared a sauce of onions, ginger, garlic, PaneerFriedtomatoes, cumin, coriander, more onions (yes! “twice-onioned is twice-blessed”), cayenne pepper, cardamom, garam masala, cloves, nutmeg and water. Once I had that ready, I added the fried cheese and let it all cook for about 20 minutes.

The dam aloo took some preparation as well, though not as much. I started by boiling some PotatoesFrying2small whole potatoes, then pulling off the skins. These were a bit green, so I actually pared away the green bits, then pierced each potato repeatedly with a toothpick. Then I fried the potatoes until they were reddish-brown, then set them aside. I then sauteed some onions and added yogurt, cayenne, fennel, ginger, cumin, cloves and water; when that was at the right stage IndianFoodIngredientsof simmering I added the potatoes and let that cook for about 10 minutes.

The final dish was cachumber ka salad, or cucumber salad. This was the simplest preparation of all (other than the rice, for which I used a rice cooker). I mixed finely chopped cucumber, onion, tomato, and cilantro with some DamAloosalt and lemon juice, then let it chill while I finished the rest of the cooking.

The full meal was quite a bit of work, but was really delicious. The spices were distinctive but not overwhelming, though I discovered today when I brought the leftovers for lunch that they do intensify with time. (Luckily there were not many people in the office DicedSaladto be offended by my breath.) I followed the set meal as laid out in the book, except that I substituted the rasmalai for a frozen dessert (similar composition but there wasn’t room in my freezer), and my only complaint was that it was a bit heavy on frying and whole milk and a bit light on green vegetables. But all the dishes went well together. (I believe we got to the end of the first season that evening.)

Verdict: Success. It was a fair amount of work but it was really good.

I took many more photos than I had room for in this post; be sure to visit my 107 Cookbooks set on Flickr.

Two at One Blow: Moosewood Cooks at Home, CIA Vegetables

spaghetti with zucchini and lemon, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home

Brussels sprouts with mustard glaze, Culinary Institute of America Vegetables

FettuciniInBowl3This is not the first time I’ve made more than one blog recipe at once, but I think it’s the first time I’m combining two books’ worth in a single post. I’m doing it because the recipe I chose from the Culinary Institute of America book isn’t quite enough to warrant its own post, though the book itself probably is. I could have made many more elaborate things from this book, and intend BrusselsSproutsto do so in the future: corn chowder with chiles and Monterey Jack, spinach salad with marinated shiitakes and red onion, and chiles rellenos all beckon, but none of the more elaborate dishes fit with this weekend’s constraints, which were to make something not overly time-consuming and to buy as few additional groceries as possible. Brussels sprouts with IngredsForPastaNBrussmustard glaze, on the other hand, sounded tremendous, but not sufficient for dinner.

So I flipped through Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, which is a 1994 offering from the famed vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, New York (I’ve never been, but I do have a Moosewood apron courtesy of a former boss). I wasn’t finding much to fit the bill BrusselsSproutsTrimmedthere either, and was beginning to seriously consider the possibility that I was just being picky and distracted. My usual approach to such picky distraction is to make something I know by heart (chili-rubbed chicken, anyone?) or to propose a trip to the diner, but I thought I had better try to master my lazy impulses — and avoid falling even further behind on the blog — and make something BrusselsSproutsCookinganyway. Spaghetti with zucchini and lemon seemed appealing, if not perfectly seasonable, and I knew it would be easy to get what I needed. I even had a box of long pasta just waiting for use, so it seemed perfect.

The Brussels sprouts would make a great side dish for a traditional dinner, and they’re really easy. I rinsed the sprouts, trimmed the MustardSaucehard ends, pulled away any loose or yellow leaves, and cut an X in the stem end of each. Then I cooked them in boiling salted water for about 10 minutes, after which I drained them. I was a little afraid they’d get too soft, but they were just right — tender and bright green. Then I heated some vegetable broth and some grainy mustard (the grainiest I found was still rather less grainy ZucchSlicesthan what was pictured in the cookbook), and simmered the mixture briefly to thicken it, then tossed the sprouts in the glaze and served them.

The pasta was a little more involved, though not by much. I sliced some zucchini into rounds, minced some garlic, cut some basil leaves into thin strips, juiced a lemon, and grated a fair bit of CookingZucchiniRomano cheese. Then I brought the water to boil for pasta. The recipe calls for spaghetti or linguini, but the long pasta I had on hand was fettucini, and I decided it was close enough for my purposes. Once the pasta was in the water I heated some olive oil in a skillet and sauteed the zucchini and garlic. As you can tell from the picture, I had a bit more zucchini and less skillet AddingLemonNBasilthan would have been ideal, but with some judicious turning I was able to cook the slices pretty evenly without managing to knock an unreasonable number out of the pan.

When the zucchini was a bit browned, I added some salt and pepper, then the lemon juice and basil. At this point I pulled the pan off the heat, and the fettucini PuttingItAllTogetherwas just about done too, so I drained the pasta and mixed everything together in a pasta bowl, adding the cheese at this point as well. One drawback of the long flat noodles is that it is tricky to evenly mix a chunky vegetable mixture with them; perhaps the spaghetti or linguini would have been more suited, though not by much. When I had it as well combined as I thought I AllMixedCloseup2could manage, and the cheese had begun to melt and distribute itself pretty evenly, I dished it up.

The Brussels sprouts were tasty. I like their bitterness, and I was a little afraid the mustard sauce would make them overwhelming, but it gave them a different kind of savory balance and worked quite well. The pasta was delicious as well, with the lemon FettuciniInBowl2juice giving the zucchini a brighter, fresher flavor. The dish is probably better suited to late summer, but it was quite welcome on a snowy Saturday night. The two dishes were good complements, with the bitter edge of the pasta balancing the mellower zucchini and rich cheese.

Verdict: Success. I’ll definitely make both again, and I will make a special effort to pick up the CIA Vegetables book again when the Greenmarket is in full swing.

McCall’s Cookie Collection: Two New (to Me) Holiday Cookies

coffee-almond lace wafers, glazed fudge drops

RolledWafersThis is the third and last Christmas cookie post. I’ve come back to McCall’s Cookie Collection, which I used in June only to realize I’d made that recipe before, and so this time I was careful to choose things I know I’ve never made. From this book or any other, in fact. As is my wont, I tried to choose cookies that would be a little bit tricky, but both recipes were surprisingly GlazingFudgeDropseasy.

The first one I attempted was coffee-almond lace wafers. The batter itself is simple: Combine ground almonds (I used a coffee grinder to grind my own), butter, sugar, instant coffee, milk and a bit of flour in a saucepan, and stir them together over low heat until the butter is melted.

IngredsForCoffeeAlmondLaceHere I must make an FTC-guidelines-style disclaimer: The instant coffee I used was Starbucks VIA, Colombian, and I got it free from another far more popular blogger, Clutch 22, who is a co-worker; Starbucks had sent her a generous supply of both Colombian and Italian varieties and encouraged her to blog about it, share samples with others, and encourage them to blog about it MeltingButteras well. So Starbucks has indirectly provided me with free samples in hopes that I will endorse it. I drank some in October and enjoyed it, but never wrote about it. But I was very glad to have it on hand for this recipe, because I was not inclined to go out and buy other kinds of instant coffee for the sake of the recipe. Unlike other brands that I’ve tried when stuck in cheap LiquidBatteroffice settings or motels, VIA actually tastes like real coffee. And it imparted a very good coffee flavor to these cookies. Plus, the little single-serve packet was exactly the right amount for the recipe. So, OK, I’m endorsing it.

Once the batter was a smooth liquid, I poured little rounds of it onto parchment on cookie sheets, BatterToBakeabout five rounds per cookie sheet. I baked them one sheet at a time for about 8 minutes, during which time the batter spread in a lacy pattern; then I let the sheet cool for about a minute.

Now came what I thought would be the tricky part: I picked up each round in turn and rolled it around the handle of a wooden BakedFlatWafersspoon, then placed the cylinder on a cooling rack to finish setting. In fact the cookies began to stiffen up as soon as they were lifted from the cookie sheet, and if I didn’t move quickly enough the last cookie would harden too soon and shatter when I tried to roll it. But once I got a feel for the pace at which I needed to lift and roll, this part became very easy. I love it when you can follow some IngredsForFudgeDropssimple steps and produce something that looks complicated and elegant.

The cooled cookies were delicious, with a rich coffee and almond flavor, but quite fragile. I decided not to ship any because I did not think they would survive handling by the Postal Service, so those we didn’t eat at the party went in to the office, where they were very MixingFudgeBatterwell received.

The other recipe I tried was for glazed fudge drops. These were fairly easy as well, and may be the only cookie I’ve made in years that doesn’t call for butter. In one bowl I mixed flour, unsweetened cocoa powder, salt and baking powder. In another bowl I beat eggs with vegetable oil, vanilla, almond extract and FudgeBatterWithNutssugar; I then stirred in the flour mixture and chopped walnuts, and chilled the resulting stiff dough for 30 minutes, during which time I sifted powdered sugar and beat it with a bit of milk to make a glaze.

I took the dough out of the fridge and scooped spoonfuls of it onto parchment on cookie sheets, and baked them for about 10 minutes. FudgeDropsToBakeI let them cool on the cookie sheets for a minute or two, then transferred the cookies to a cooling rack set over parchment and spooned on glaze, then sprinkled on chocolate jimmies. I made the mistake of glazing too many at first without adding the jimmies right away; the glaze hardens fast, so you really have to glaze and then sprinkle about four at a time to keep the jimmies FudgeDropsBakedfrom just bouncing right off. I was quite pleased to see that the glaze was almost exactly the right amount for the number of cookies the recipe produced, with barely a cookie’s worth left in the bowl when all were coated. The resulting cookies were tasty — nutty and chewy, with a good chocolate flavor — and everyone seemed to enjoy them.

Verdict: Success. I’ll be adding these to my repertoire, and maybe I can even figure out a way to securely pack the coffee-almond lace wafers for shipping.

Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies: The Great Caramel Spill of 2009

golden popcorn squares

CaramelPopcornBarsThe really crazy part of this isn’t that I tried out a caramel sauce recipe that nearly led to disaster. The really crazy part is that I almost made fortune cookies in addition to the other holiday sweets.

PopcornMartha Stewart Holiday Cookies is another of those special-issue magazines, this one from 2001 (several years before we lived above Zupan’s). I’ve used it before; I’m quite fond of the oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries, and there’s a chocolate cookie that I make every year (I did this year too, but didn’t take pictures since it’s not new for the blog). Most of these recipes are charming and truly special, and this appealed to me because I don’t want to do PopcornNPeanutsanything dull or unoriginal when it comes to my holiday baking.

So I gave very serious thought to making fortune cookies, for which Martha provides a recipe. I’ve made fortune cookies before, nearly 20 years ago now; the tricky part is folding them quickly before they harden. But when I was doing my last planning for the baking marathon I calculated CookingSyrupforCaramelhow long it would take to make them, and realized that I would have to devote 2 hours just to the fortune cookies; they go slowly because you can only bake two at a time to ensure you have time to fold them.

So I turned instead to golden popcorn squares. Every other cookie in the magazine has a big glorious display photograph. CookingSyrup2Golden popcorn squares appear in a photo that’s really featuring creative ways to pack and wrap the cookies, and I had to dig to find it; the squares are a pretty small part of the scene. I think there’s a reason for this. They’re not an elegantly pretty cookie. They are a somewhat rustic bar. And, oh, they are messy.

Golden popcorn squares have CaramelSaucethree basic ingredients: popcorn, peanuts and caramel sauce. Popcorn was easy: I used our stovetop popper and some Greenmarket popcorn kernels and canola oil, and in short order had exactly 12 cups of beautiful, white, fluffy kernels — and no unpopped kernels. I thought this was auspicious, which just goes to show you that I am not always in tune with my intuition. I added some peanuts, and I took a few moments to prepare the baking pan: oil the pan, line it with parchment, oil the parchment. Then I turned my attention to the caramel sauce, for which Martha provides the recipe.

CaramelCornI wasn’t intimidated at the prospect of making caramel sauce on the stovetop. I’ve made peanut brittle before, so heating sugar syrup is nothing new to me. And I was careful to use a good, heavy saucepan, a nice Calphalon one I received for Christmas a few years ago. The recipe specifies that the saucepan should be at least 3 inches deep, and this one was 4 inches. What I failed to take into account was that I was making one and a half recipes’ worth. So I blithely moved ahead. I combined sugar, PanToBakecream of tartar, salt and water in the pan and cooked it until it reached 300 degrees. This is kind of fun to watch: When it reaches 212 the water boils out vigorously, and it looks like it’s going to bubble out of control but it doesn’t. When the mixture reached 300, I attempted to follow the direction to pour heavy cream slowly down the side of the saucepan. I believe the object of doing it this way is to quickly warm up the cream before it reaches the syrup. Unfortunately, my pan was small enough that I had very little side of pan exposed above the top of the sugar mixture, and could not help but pour some of the still-cool cream directly into the sauce, which caused it to bubble over dramatically.

CleanedStovetopThe first rule in any cooking mishap is not to panic. The second is to remove a boiling-over mixture from the hot burner, which I did immediately, though it was a little tough because the sticky mixture really wanted to adhere the pan to the stovetop. I went ahead and finished incorporating the cream into the sauce, then mixed it with the popcorn and peanuts and PanBakedNTurnedpressed the mixture tightly into the baking pan. With bars safely in the oven, I turned my attention to the stovetop. As you can see, I took a couple of pictures of mess mode, but of course I couldn’t capture the most alarming points of the boiling-over because I needed to focus on dealing with the crisis itself. And I am inordinately proud of the fact that it did not occur to me until hours later to summon my husband out to the kitchen to document the disaster for me. This tells me I haven’t entirely taken leave of my senses. (You cannot blame me for wanting assurance sometimes.)

PanBakedNTurned2Caramel sauce is a sticky substance, and burned caramel sauce really wants to adhere to the stovetop. Fortunately, the thing that makes it so sticky is also the key to its cleanup: The stuff is mostly sugar, and sugar dissolves in hot water. I did a bit of damage to a kitchen sponge, but with some concerted effort I was able to wipe away the stuck-on goo in pretty short order, and I had managed to clear away nearly all traces before the popcorn mixture was ready to come out of the oven. What really saved me was the new flat stovetop; it would have been a lot harder to safely get the caramel out of the pipes and crevice of a gas stove burner.

SlabToCutWe weren’t done with the recipe yet, though. Martha directs you to prepare two pans, but I only have one of that size. Her instructions call for letting the baked bars cool for 5 minutes, then inverting the mixture into the second prepared pan and letting that cool entirely. Perhaps, I thought, I could turn the bars onto a cookie sheet. So I tried it, and CuttingSlabthe caramel quickly began to dribble down and the popcorn slab to sag and spread. It would seem the point of the second pan is to get the baked mixture into cooler surroundings as quickly as possible to allow it to set up. So I hustled to wash, re-oil and re-parchment the pan, then invert the now shaggy-looking mixture back into it. The whole thing was somewhat lopsided and irregular, but I left it to cool overnight anyway.

CuttingSlab2The next day, I turned the now-set bars out of the pan onto a cutting board and hewed it into squares. I expected that part to be more difficult, but my knife is a pretty good one, and it didn’t take me long to make passable bars. They looked great, though the longer they sat at room temperature the more they wanted to adhere to one another. By the time I was ready to bag up treats I’d given up on the concept of “bars,” and of “pretty,” and decided to see it as bags of caramel corn.

CaramelPopcornBars2And it was delicious. Is delicious; I’m nibbling on some right now. (Carefully, so as not to get my keyboard sticky.) I may have to get a second baking pan and a larger Calphalon saucepan, sharpen my knife, and try it again next year.

Verdict: Close enough. I made caramel corn and got the stovetop clean again. That’s good enough for me.

Christmas Cookies: First of Three Holiday Cookie Posts

Christmas sugar wafers

DecoratedShapes2Christmas Cookies is a pretty little volume published by Oxmoor House, which also puts out a lot of Martha Stewart titles. The photography is lovely, and the recipes are very nice. I’ve used this book before; last year I made a pecan-butter cookie that was truly delicious and very easy. I may make some of those this coming weekend, now that I think about it. But this past weekend I SugarWaferIngredientswas determined to take advantage of my holiday baking frenzy to check a few blog titles off the list, and the rules call for new recipes, so the pecan-butter cookies did not make the cut. Instead, I decided to try Christmas sugar wafers, which have earned themselves a place near the head of my sugar cookie list.

BeatenWetMixtureNot that this list is terribly long, mind you. Most sugar cookies are not too exciting. Bakery sugar cookies are usually forgettable, and the ones from the plastic tube are execrable. But they’re fun. If you’re baking cookies for the holidays you need to have some that you can cut into shapes and decorate, and it’s silly to add creamy frosting and colored sprinkles to a cookie BeatenDoughthat’s flavorful enough to stand on its own. Sugar cookies do not need to be strongly flavored, but they should be buttery rather than cardboard-y. For years I’ve made my Christmas cutout cookies from a sour cream cookie recipe, which provides a nice rich undertone to the chocolate jimmies and icing squiggles and red hots.

DividingDoughThe challenge with sugar cookies is that they’re easy to overwork. The dough at its best is delicate and buttery, but rolling it repeatedly on a floury surface can make it tough and dull the flavor. There are two main ways to minimize this risk: chilling the dough so that it is not overly soft and kneadable when it is rolled, and rolling it between sheets of parchment or wax paper to DividingDough2minimize the use of flour. This recipe takes advantage of both techniques quite cleverly: once you have mixed the dough you roll it, between sheets of waxed paper, into four rounds, then put it into the freezer for at least half an hour (overnight turns out to be fine too); when you are ready to cut, you can get right to it without additional rolling, and the RollingSugarCookiesstill-cold cookies will not stretch or tear as you transfer them to the baking sheet.

Making the dough was fairly easy. I started by combining the dry ingredients: flour, some cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda and salt. I think the cornstarch helped mitigate toughness too, by helping to stiffen the dough without gluten. CookieShapesThen I beat together some butter, white sugar and brown sugar. When it was fluffy, I added vanilla and egg whites (the absence of yolks was another factor in a lighter, airier dough). I beat in the flour mixture, then divided and rolled the dough and chilled it. I took only one circle out of the freezer at a time, and did my best to cut the shapes as close together as possible to ensure the CookieShapes2least possible scrap dough to re-roll.

I baked the cookies until they were lightly browned and let them cool. That evening I hosted a cookie party; I’d invited people only a few days before (I’d sort of overlooked that detail in the midst of a crazed week back at work) and so there were only a few of us, but we had a good time BakedCookies2frosting and adorning the shapes. We also had a good time drinking the delicious Belgian-style beer that one guest brought, with up to 12% alcohol, which is the sort of thing that you don’t notice at the time but are acutely aware of the next morning when you have to get up and go to work. Fortunately, decorated sugar cookies can help restore one’s spirits, though not quite as BakedCookieseffectively as lots of water and a large coffee.

I invited guests to take home cookies, then packed what was left into little bags and sent most of them off to distant friends. Fingers crossed they will arrive in good time, still recognizable as trees and pigs and bells rather than crumbs and clumps. (Yes, pigs. I have a pig cookie cutter DecoratedShapesand I use it. Those of you who are Discworld fans can take this as a¬† nod to Hogswatchnight, the night that the Hogfather travels around the world giving gifts, assuming things haven’t gone awry.)

Verdict: Success. The cookies were light and buttery, and took well to decoration — better than the sour cream cookies, in fact. I may have to make these my holiday decorating standards.

Cooking Light: What’s for Dinner: Fast and Easy Supper

taco burgers

AssembledBurgersCooking Light: What’s For Dinner is a bit of a stretch to define as a cookbook; it’s a special extra issue of Cooking Light magazine with fast, easy and light dinner recipes. These seem like they would be good for busy weeknight cooking. I’m not sure where I got the magazine, but it’s dated 2004 so I probably bought it at the upscale supermarket that we lived above for one year (one glorious year) in Portland. And it’s possible that I didn’t use it at the time because another great way to manage fast weeknight suppers there was to pick up something at the sandwich counter, the hot deli or the sushi bar on the way upstairs.

BeefBeansSeasoning2I now don’t even live in the same neighborhood as an upscale supermarket, let alone upstairs from one. And while that’s probably saving me a great deal of money in Ben & Jerry’s expenses, it means I have to do a little more planning to ensure I can pull together a fast dinner. A lot of these recipes seem like they’d be good for that.

I decided to make taco burgers because the recipe happened to catch my eye as I was flipping through. That’s it: no symbolic value, no seasonal resonance, no potential joke, just “hey, that sounds good, let’s do that.”

BeefBeanPattiesTaco burgers are pretty simple. I blended about three-quarters of a pound of lean ground beef (the recipe calls for ground round) with half a cup of canned black beans that had been drained and rinsed, plus one and a half tablespoons of taco seasoning. The recipe calls for reduced-sodium taco seasoning, but I live in near-in Queens. New York City doesn’t have room for mega-supermarkets like Fred Meyer that carry tons of products and tons of selection in every area. New York has little supermarkets that have one or two brands for any given product. My neighborhood in particular is not affluent enough for a big market like a Fairway, let alone a Whole Foods; it also has a lot of Mexican and Central American residents, and this means that the demand for prepared taco seasoning is pretty low. Why use the prefab stuff when you can make something far better with fresh spices and your own know-how, especially if you’re highly unlikely to make something as Americanized as hard-shell tacos? Tacos in this neighborhood come from trucks at the curb, not from cardboard boxes. So my choices for taco seasoning were sodium-rich and not-quite-so-sodium-rich; I chose the latter.

PattiesCookingI mixed the beef, beans and seasoning together with my hands and shaped burger patties, then pan-cooked them. While they cooked I prepared the buns: whole wheat (the recipe called for reduced-calorie, but I didn’t find that either), plus tomato slices (findable) and salsa (pretty good options, as it turns out). The recipe also calls for shredded lettuce, but I wouldn’t bother with that if I were making tacos or other sandwiches, so I didn’t here. I thought briefly of using lettuce leaves — so much less annoying than the shreds — but I didn’t have room in the fridge for the salad bowl and I knew that if I let the head of lettuce sit unused for more than a day I would forget it until my next big fridge purge, and it would be unpleasant.

PattiesTurnedWhen the burgers were nearly done I topped them with slices of cheddar and let them cook briefly, covered, so the cheese could start to melt. Again, the recipe called for reduced-fat cheddar; not to sound like a broken record or anything, but not something easy to find in my neighborhood. I have to note that this is a city where “light” cooking options are going to be a lot more successful if they call for fresh and natural ingredients than if they call for reduced-calorie or reduced-fat versions of prepared ingredients. And frankly, that’s how I’d prefer to do it anyway. So many “light” processed products really taste like they’re something less than the real thing; I’d rather go for high quality and moderation than one-for-one substitution.

AssembledBurgers2Plating was simple: I put the patties on the buns, added the tomato and salsa, took a few photos, and put the tops on the buns. I served them with tortilla chips from a fairly new Mexican grocery store nearby that’s run by people who used to work at one of our favorite diners. They don’t have reduced-calorie anything in that shop. Anyway, the burgers were tasty; the beans were a good complement to the meat and the seasoning was in the right proportion, which is good to know since I have about two-thirds of a packet left.

Verdict: Success. Fast and easy, and who knows? Maybe some day I’ll come across the light ingredients, though until then I can just use less cheese. And make room for the lettuce. But it was a nice easy dinner, which was a good thing, because I had quite enough to do already making cookie dough. My next three posts will be about holiday baking, and the Great Caramel Spill. Stay tuned.

Laurel’s Kitchen Bread: Patience Is a Virtue

oatmeal bread

SlicedLoafSaturday was a nasty day in New York: cold, gloomy and rainy, with snow making a halfhearted attempt to fall closer to sundown. Scott was fighting off a cold. It seemed like a perfect day to make soup, but I didn’t feel like digging out a soup recipe from the blog cookbooks; I wanted to make my usual improvised chicken soup. Still, it seemed to be high time to knock off another CookingOatmeal2blog post, so I looked at my current stack. Bread! This would also be a great day to make bread.

The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book is a compendium of bread recipes from Laurel Robertson, author of the popular Laurel’s Kitchen vegetarian cookbooks. The book was a gift from a friend, and I realized a few things as I was DissolvingYeastflipping through it, the chief thing being that I should have started working on the bread a lot earlier in the day. For oatmeal bread I’d need to cook up some oatmeal and let it cool, though I didn’t have the “several hours” recommended in the recipe. Would something else be faster? Anything with “overnight started” was probably out. I flipped through the pages. “For a 12-hour AddingHoneyNOilrise…” was the quicker version for one bread. It looked like oatmeal was my best bet, but I would need to get cracking.

As I cooked the oatmeal I thought about how similar this recipe was to another favorite oatmeal loaf, from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, another vegetarian classic. In both, you cook and cool the oatmeal, then mix in salt, StiffDoughsweetener (usually but not necessarily honey) and oil, and add it to the proofed yeast and flour. The Enchanted Broccoli Forest doesn’t require quite as many rises, though, and my focus on quantity rather than process — along with my consciousness of the ticking clock — ultimately led me into error.

I cooked and cooled oatmeal. DoughForFirstRiseWhen the oatmeal had cooled enough, I dissolved some yeast in warm water. (May I put in a plug here for bulk packages of yeast? So much better quality, and less expensive per use, than the little sheaf of three servings.) I stirred some honey and vegetable oil into the oatmeal (I had already salted it right after I took it off the burner), then mixed it into the yeast mixture and added five DoughForSecondRisecups of flour. Laurel recommends five cups of finely ground whole wheat flour; I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant so I ended up using two cups of whole wheat pastry flour, two cups of whole wheat flour, and one cup of white flour. The mixture started out thick and stiff, but as I kneaded it, the moisture gradually worked out of the oatmeal into the rest of the dough and the mass became OatPanssoft and pliable. When it felt right to me, after about 10 minutes of kneading, I washed and oiled the original bowl, shaped the dough into a ball, and set it to rise, covered, for not quite an hour and a half.

When the kitchen timer went off I came out to inspect the dough. It looked larger, but the cookbook recommends you test the texture DoughForLoavesrather than relying on volume. So I poked a finger in about half an inch, and the hole did not close up; this meant it was ready to press into a somewhat flat disc and allow to rise for about 40 minutes. During this rise I cut up my soup vegetables. When the timer went off, I followed Laurel’s instructions and shaped the dough into two balls, which I then let rest. “Until they are much LoavesInPanssofter” was the direction, but they seemed quite soft to me; I let them sit for 10 minutes, during which time I set the oven to preheat, then greased two loaf pans and sprinkled them with rolled oats. I shaped the dough balls into loaves and laid them in the pans.

This is where I messed up. I misread the recipe, and I was BakedLoaves2thinking, “two rises, that’s pretty standard.” So I failed to catch that I was supposed to let the dough rise once again in the pans, “until doubled.” In my defense, it was getting rather late already. I suppose that’s no defense. I should have cooked the oatmeal earlier in the day, which means I should have decided earlier in the day to make soup and bread, which means I should SlicingLoafCloseuphave gotten out of bed earlier. Oops. Instead, I blithely slid the pans into the preheated oven, and set about making soup.

I didn’t realize my mistake until about 5 minutes before the bread was due to come out of the oven, which was rather too late to do anything about it. The loaves did puff up a bit while baking, but clearly they are flatter than they would have been if given their last rise. They were also a bit denser than the recipe described, which is not surprising. The taste was good, though I think it would have been a little bit richer and mellower if I had followed instructions. No matter. The bread was still a fine accompaniment to soup.

Verdict: Success, but points off for technical error. I’ll have to try the recipe again some time, starting it earlier in the day.