Monday, December 27, 2010

The 12 Shades of Christmas, Part II


He could see red, berries on holly and cotoneaster. He could smell lavender and thyme. All that could not be taken from him. And it didn't matter if, overnight, the colour had worn off the kitchen knobs. It didn't matter if the china light-shade in the kitchen had a crack he hadn't heard about before. What mattered was damage done to something as fragile as a dream.
-William Trevor ("The Piano Tuner's Wives")

It's hard to find time to blog around the holidays. There are so many things to do, people to see, places to go, new toys to play with (I never thought I'd say this, but I find myself quite enamored of the Amazon Kindle! I have since named mine Penelope, in honor of the first book I purchased, Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, which, for some reason, was the book that just popped into my head), new books to read...and, oh my, the eating that accompanies all of it! Even if there's a lot of unnecessary and stressful hoopla, ultimately, what's not to love about the holidays? :)

So, here are the final 6 shades of (my) Christmas, both random highlights and several recipes included.

7) Much like with Thanksgiving, I find one of my favorite things about Christmas to be the simple act of sitting in a room with family (obviously including the dogs), friends and the all-important Christmas tree. While I've always somewhat disliked the fact that we've never had a real pine tree, what has always made up for this in my mind was the beautiful hand-painted village my grandma made in her ceramics class when I was little. These houses are magical and intricate (as you can see in the first photo of this post); I used to love not only watching her paint glittery snow on top of them, but also helping to set up the village under the tree, arranging the cotton, putting the lights through them and watching the whole set-up come to life.

8) Since my grandma's side of the family is Italian, our annual feast has always included things like baccala, smelts, pasta with garlic and oil and the oh so necessary tray of olives...All in all, it's both a scrumptious and photogenic meal. :)



9) Despite my love of our traditions, I'm usually the one who says, "This year we're going to try x or y..." Case in point: a few years ago I got it into my head, courtesy of my subscription to Saveur (I do love that magazine), that we absolutely had to try an herb-stuffed pork loin ...Needless to say, it was delicious and a nice break from the usual ham. Not that I have anything against ham, but, cliche though it is, I do generally believe that "spice is the variety of life." And, so, since my mom wasn't making either her shrimp dip or her spinach dip (two Christmas Eve staples), one of my contributions to this year's meal was tzatziki, which, fortunately, doesn't take a whole lot of time to prepare (the day was quite busy) and is both flavorful and healthy. Though I'm not sure it was quite right, it was pretty good. Three family members asked for the recipe, which, in my mind, translates to a job well done.



10) My other big contribution was the aforementioned Quince Tart that I had sampled at the annual department holiday party (thanks again, M!). What can I say? Not only was it a fantasy project of mine, but also, in the midst of such decadence, it does make me feel better (even if only a little) to know that there is at least one dessert on our table with fruit in it! The only problem, however, was that the quince that the local Giant Eagle had to offer was not necessarily the same caliber of quince that one would find at Berkeley Bowl (whenever I return to the east coast, I'm reminded of the differences that exist between the coasts--largely, the difficulty of finding quality produce in the winter months on this cold, cold half of the United States). So, given the similarity between the quince and the apple, I added a Fuji to the mix and, really, once both were sauteed in honey and butter, nobody could tell the difference anyway. I further doctored the recipe by using phyllo instead of puff pastry for a crunchier texture and definitely used more than the suggested 1/4 cup of of almond paste (it was somewhere in the area of 1/2 cup). All in all, it seemed to work. Perhaps a new tradition is even in the making....?



11) Then, on Christmas day (and, at that, a proper white Christmas), I was excited to receive, at long last, two long-held dreams: 1) a Cuisinart ice cream maker!!!! (it would seem that many blog readers are attentive; really, this is proof that I'm extremely easy to please) :); and 2) for inspiration, David Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop.

Needless to say, January is going to be a month of experimentation. Some people work in real labs; I've just got a kitchen. Personally, I think I win. =p

12) Last but not least, cookies, cookies and more cookies! I know I also talked about cookies in my last post, but, frankly, since Christmas is the cookie holiday, I thought I'd talk about them some more. Cookies never go out of style, especially in southwestern PA. And, as per usual, we had quite the spread. My grandma is a chronic baker (clearly, I inherited it from her since all my mother likes to bake is the occasional cake) and so everything was basically ready when I got off the plane: pumpkin cookies, raisin cookies, peanut butter cookies, almond biscotti; you name it, we probably had it. Don't believe me? Look below.





It's those cream wafers at the bottom of the second photo that I'd like to focus on. Why? Because they melt in your mouth. They're sweet but not too sweet. And also because, quite frankly, they're the Cookie Champion of the century. So, even though 5+ dozen of these were already made, I had to go to my grandma's and make more. Obviously we were going to need another batch to last us into the new year. :) And for additional holiday cheer, I added some red food coloring to the icing.

Cream Wafers
Yields 6-7 dozen










For the wafers:
1 lb. softened butter
4 cups flour
2/3 cup whipping cream
White sugar to coat cookies

-Mix butter and flour in a standing mixer
-Gradually add cream and mix well
-Chill dough for at least 1 hour
-Heat oven to 350 degrees.
-Roll dough out on lightly floured surface
Cut into 1 inch rounds (we use a ravioli maker to size them, but cookie cutters can also be used, although the dough is delicate)
-Coat with sugar on both sides
-Place on ungreased cookie sheet
-Poke holes into the cookies with a fork
-Bake 7 to 9 minutes
-Cool and fill with icing

For the icing:

1 stick softened butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg white
1/2 cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla

-Blend 1 stick butter with 1/2 cup crisco
-Add 1 cup sugar
- Mix well
-Add 1 egg white.
-Whip until fluffy
-1/2 cup milk , heated to a scald
-Pour slowly over sugar mixture while beating
-Add vanilla

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The 12 Shades of Christmas, Part I


It was a wild idea, romantic and implausible, and the odd thing is that it worked.
-Louis de Bernieres (Corelli's Mandolin)

A lot can happen in a week. I flew across the country (it's cold here; my skin doesn't like it at all). I also revised my prospectus (yay, finally! Now the real writing can begin) and sent it off to each and every committee member. In the midst of all that, I also made cornbread to go with the chili that my mom made; both were so delicious and warm that I didn't even bother to take a picture of them...even though they were pretty and blog-worthy. However, I'm not here to talk about cornbread. There's plenty of time for that later.



This is instead going to be about Christmas. And cookies. Because Christmas wouldn't be the same without them! Keep in mind that, despite the fact that I know Christmas isn't at all PC and, for the majority of America it's all "Happy Holidays" this and that (as evidenced by the message I discovered written on a jar of disposable hand-towels in the eat-in section of a Pittsburgh Whole Foods; see below for a very ungrammatical, but very Pittsburghese holiday greeting), I'm going to use it anyway. For me, Christmas has nothing to do with Christ, which became clear a few weeks ago at a cookie baking party with the Chemical Engineering graduate students. I couldn't remember one girl's name and so I asked the Greek and he responded (naturally in Russian so as not to be at all obvious) telling me that her name was the female equivalent of the famous person born on December 25. So, I called her Nicolette. Not Christie. *sigh* I know, I know; I suppose I can be a bit daft sometimes, but who can blame me? Ever since I was a little girl, I've always been a member of Camp Claus. Nothing gave me more joy than picking out the choicest morsels for his "consumption" on Christmas Eve.


But because I shouldn't try to cram too many recipes into one post and my grandma and I are baking some of the world's best cookies tomorrow (seriously, they have never failed to please. Not even the most anti-sugar hardened heart could refuse them), I'm going to break this post into two and fill it with highlights from the past week, which really means more joy for you! :)

1) Last week I did my first official gift exchange of the season! And, for probably the first time in my life--after 27 years of giving poorly wrapped gifts or gifts wrapped by those more talented than me, I finally grasped the art of folding the paper. It was remarkable (I kid you not; while that may seem like overstatement, anything involving paper folding and cutting has always escaped me). Even more remarkable than that was the fact that a very careful reader of this blog gifted me with something I really wanted and then some. I am now the proud owner of a 6 lb. Greek cookbook (!!) that, due to the difficulty of carrying heavy bags in crowded airports, sadly had to stay in CA! Asterix, however, is a light and enjoyable traveling companion.


2) My mom and I went to Pittsburgh, albeit not for the happiest of reasons. But I've always been one to have, a la British style, a stiff upper lip and also to seek the positive in any situation. So, we made a day of it, squeezing a little shopping in, as well as some "fine" dining. In fact, I treated us to lunch at Whole Foods. Where else can you combine ginger tofu with roasted squash and a nice-sized portion of Mac and Cheese? Maybe such things were not meant to be combined, but whatever. The point is, I enjoy the possibility. I once combined hummus and provolone too and, let me just say, naysayers be damned, it was surprisingly tasty. =p




3) I left my gloves in California. It's not fun to drive, to touch a cold steering wheel, with my bare hands, so I had to find gloves. Not only did I think these were adorable, but they also made me feel like I was wearing a touch of Berkeley--some Golden Bears pride. Maybe they're for children, but, oh well, they fit my hands.



4) My brother's lovely girlfriend is visiting from central PA (closer to Baltimore than to Pittsburgh) and so she and I, both to bond and to satisfy our own sweet tooth (in addition to my brother's humongous one) baked at least 8 dozens of cookies tonight. One of our recipes was the latest by Joy the Baker, which, when I read about it, I found to be pretty intriguing. After all, it's not everyday that I eat cookies with chunks of apples in them. But, after trying these, that might have to change. The combination of oats, apples and cinnamon-y goodness is just plain good. I didn't have walnuts and I couldn't find any nutmeg in my mother's spice cabinet, but pecans and a dash of ginger will save the day. In fact, I think I'd take ginger over nutmeg any day.



5) I'm sure I've mentioned that the true love of my life (besides coffee) is peanut butter; I put it in oatmeal with either bananas or blackberries (trust me when I say it's like a PB & J sandwich), I eat it on a spoon with apples....or on bread with Nutella (who said hazelnuts and peanuts don't mix?). So, obviously, it was inevitable that one day I was going to make some kind of peanut butter cookie and post about it on this blog. And that day was today. I found a recipe on epicurious for Peanut Butter Cookies with Chocolate Chunks. This recipe calls for oats, honey, peanut butter, brown and white sugar and chopped chocolate. It's basically my dream cookie. But then, for some reason, I wasn't so into the idea of chopping chocolate (a tedious task) and, since my grandma had given me some mini tart baking pans, I decided to roll them into balls, put them in those pans instead of on a cookie sheet and then, to push a combination of chocolate and peanut butter chips into the top of them. Kind of like those fantastic peanut butter cookies that call for the addition of Reese's Cups? In short, a peanut butter lover's fantasy concoction.



6) You might be wondering how anything could top these tasty-looking cookies? The impossible is sometimes possible and this was no exception. The Cookie Queen of the Evening was, while fairly homely-looking and barely able to rise off of the cookie sheet, a small mass of crumbly, crispy and buttery goodness with a surprisingly spicy kick: Curry Coriander Shorties. Yes, you read that correctly. Curry and coriander. Little sugar. Two sticks of butter. Mixing only with a spatula. So, so good. Though I would recommend each and every cookie (or recipe!) on this blog, if there were anything that you were to have to make immediately, I would say that it should be these. They're the perfect antidote to the sometimes overly saccharine quality of Christmas. Maybe it's the season for miracles (or so they say), but I personally can't help but like the thought of a spicy bite of reality.




Curry Coriander Shorties

Adapted from Paul Grimes at Gourmet
Yields 3 dozen, which won't last long

2 teaspoons coriander seeds *
1 1/2 teaspoon curry powder (preferably Madras) *
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

*Due to the difficulty of finding spices at the local grocery store, I bought ground coriander seeds and toasted them. I was perhaps missing out on some of the flavor, but there was still plenty to go around.
*I knew my mother had curry powder at home, so I didn't buy any at the grocery store. But then I discovered it was a curry masala blend instead of "pure" curry powder. Considering that we all still liked them (and there were several taste testers to be found), I would say that you should just use what you have on hand.

-Toast coriander (or ground coriander) in a small heavy skillet over medium heat, shaking skillet often, until fragrant and a shade darker, about 2 minutes. Cool. If using seeds, finely grind them in the spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.
-Toast curry powder in same skillet over medium heat, stirring, until fragrant and a shade or two darker, about 1 minute.
-Preheat oven to 350°F with racks in upper and lower thirds.
-Mix butter, sugar, vanilla, and salt with a rubber spatula.
-Whisk together flour and spices, then blend into butter mixture with spatula.
-Form 1-inch balls of dough and arrange 2 inches apart on 2 ungreased large baking sheets.
-With a fork, gently flatten balls of dough to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. (NB: Based on how thin my cookies were, I would suggest that you could easily skip this step. I suppose it depends on how you like your cookies--thin and crispy or fatter and chewier.)
-Bake, switching position of sheets halfway through, until edges are golden, 12 to 15 minutes (the original recipe called for 20-25, but mine were done well before that).
- Cool on sheets 5 minutes, then transfer cookies to racks to cool.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Almost a "Bah! Humbug!"

"It makes one's mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment."
— David Sedaris (Holidays on Ice)

Last time I think I was complaining about feeling like I wasn't getting out of the kitchen. Ironically, enough, now it's the exact opposite! After all, who in the world has time to cook these days? *big sigh of sadness* While, according to my calendar, it's supposedly the season of cookie baking, menu planning and putting up decorations while watching Charlie Brown and drinking mulled wine or eggnog (all glorious things, right?), the academic calendar instead tells me that it's crunch time. So, since I last posted, I've basically been focusing my attention on reading about icons, reading and grading 17 papers and, in general, running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

Didn't you know? On academic campuses across the US, that's totally the "it-look" right now--frazzled and slightly pale (from blood loss or your general fear that your adviser(s)/professors, etc. could randomly decide to behead you). But, since the picture of the card and chocolates above came from one of my now-former students, clearly there are some perks to the "beheaded-chicken" lifestyle ("some," of course, being the operative word).

In any case, since I have nothing to really show for myself (at least, in culinary terms), I'm going to tell you about what I've been dreaming of doing in the key moments of procrastination that keep the whole academic machine going....

A few recipes, for both food and drinks, that I want to try ASAP:

I tasted this amazing Quince Tart (at least what was left of it) at our departmental holiday party this past Friday and, let me just say, it's unfair that, in terms of fall fruit, apples and pears get all the glory. Long live the quince!

I love perusing the Dining section in the NYTimes, but seeing this eggnog recipe--one that will seemingly knock your socks off--made me love it even more.

Before discovering this recipe, I had no clue what amaro was, but I think it's high time to experience this for myself. I like the idea of a bitter and herbal twist on the classic Manhattan.

I've been in the mood for a crumble. Or a pear crisp. Really, either would do. I'm just really into the idea of oats, toasted nuts and gooey, oozing baked fruit right now. I think the rain might have something to do with this....and maybe the thought of the east coast air with which I will soon be reunited.

Returning to PA also makes me long for Strudel (and I love love love the title of this blog. Can you guess why? Hint: childhood reading).

And, last but not least, something a little heartier, but still exciting: from the Minimalist, a Sweet Potato and Quinoa Salad. Or, never far from my muffin-loving mind, a little something with pumpkin and feta. And maybe Pastitsio. And wedding soup, but my mom's recipe because it's the best (maybe I'll let you in on the family secret). :)

And a few other random things that are keeping me going....



The Year's Best Cookbooks, the thought of snow, Zoey-bug the mad(ly cute) dachshund, seeing the family, no more student papers, a completely finished prospectus and fun books galore--Pnin, Corelli's Mandolin, Oryx and Crake.....and whatever else I can get my greedy little fingers on (cookbooks clearly included).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Simply Classic

“Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”
-Frederic Chopin

You know, sometimes it's all about going back to the basics. As much as I love trying new recipes and looking for creative ways to cook the food that I often randomly buy, there are other times when I just want to say, ok, enough is enough, I have no time for this nonsense and buy packaged cookies. Maybe even Oreos. Or cupcakes from a bakery. Or soup from the cute hole-in-the-wall restaurant around the block. And, naturally, I sometimes give into these urges. Cooking is fun and relaxing, but I'm only human. And a grad student at that, which does mean that some days I'm going to want to read about erotic representations of femininity in the East instead of making my own brown sugar out of molasses and several cups of white sugar (because both of those activities are super normal, right?).

You may think I'm speaking in the abstract, but, just last week, after walking at least 4-5 miles (unplanned, but necessary given the transportation cuts and the need to be on time), getting a hair cut (3 inches gone! And, amazingly, it's still long-ish), tutoring in the city, and doing four loads of laundry, I was faced with such a decision when baking cookies for my students. To celebrate our last class together, the question on my mind was: should I make for them the delicious chewy molasses cookies with sea salt or should I go with something simpler, but equally tasty? Time was of the essence and so, when I picked up the bag of chocolate chips (Nestle semi-sweet), I decided to go with a tried and true classic--i.e. the first cookie recipe I had ever baked. As I taste-tested one when it came out of the oven, all gooey and soft, I can safely say that they're still as good as I remember. :)

This need for simplicity, for the minimalism and simple flavors of good home cooking, followed me into Saturday, when, on the laziest day I've had in some time (which I am now making up for and then some) I decided to use the leftover pumpkin from Thanksgiving to make these Pumpkin Pots de Crème that I saw on this lovely blog not too long ago (but mine were without apples, although I did add some pistachios). What can be easier than whisking eggs and sugar, heating up some milk/cream with spices, adding pumpkin and then whisking it into the egg and sugar combination? The trickiest thing for me with this recipe was figuring out how to make my own water bath. But despite that minor difficulty, it was worth the effort, considering how much I love a thick custard. Plus, on the rainy day that was to follow, its rich spiciness was much appreciated. Custard may just be the truest comfort food there is.

Speaking of comfort food, I promised you all a soup recipe in my last post and I'm nothing if not a woman of her word. The good news about this recipe is that it's both versatile and hearty. In addition to these winning characteristics, it also embodies what I suppose this post is all about: simple cooking. I first made this recipe during Thanksgiving weekend when, after being rained on (i.e. drenched) at a Cal football game, I was desperately craving something warm, but also in need of a hot shower to take away the chill. The charm of soup is that, while it slowly simmers, you can go about your business and end up with a quality meal after at least forty minutes or so of what, in most situations, would be considered downright neglectful.

In short, it was pure win-win, which was a nice change after the disappointing loss of Cal with two seconds on the clock. Boo to bad football, but a mushroom risotto soup should be able to save the day....(N.B. As much as I'd like to take credit for the mushroom art, I can't. A more creative soul than I took mushroom chopping to the next level). :)


Mushroom Risotto Soup
Yields 5-6 plentiful bowls

1 cup arborio rice
1-2 stalks of chopped celery
1 yellow onion, chopped finely
6 ounces Portobella mushrooms, chopped
1 cup stock from mushrooms, celery and onions (N.B. Making this recipe after the mushroom bread pudding is highly recommended because the pudding ingredients can be used in this, but a store-bought vegetable or chicken broth will also do)
4 cups vegetable broth (homemade or bought; I did a mix of homemade + store-bought)
Salt and pepper (to taste)
2 Tbsps. olive oil

-Chop all of the vegetables.
-Heat the 2 Tbsps. of olive oil over medium-high heat in a large soup pot.
-Stir in the celery and onions, cooking them until tender (3-4 minutes); **be careful that the onions don't start to brown.
-Add the mushrooms, stirring them in, and add both pepper and salt.
-Once the mushrooms have released some of their liquid (about 5-6 minutes in), add your stock (homemade or store-bought; whichever you have on hand)
-Once the soup comes to a boil, add the cup of arborio rice.
-Reduce the heat, keeping things at a slight simmer. Cook the soup for about 30-40 minutes or once the risotto has begun to absorb some of the broth and has become soft, yet still slightly chewy.
-Enjoy!

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