Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas Cookie of the Week: Pfeffernusen

For my final Christmas cookie recipe, I made a cookie that I remember from the Christmases of my childhood. Christmas cookies were not a part of our tradition except for Pfeffernuse. My father always bought a box and ate most of them himself. The rest of the family didn’t care for them. I never understood why he liked cookies that tasted just plain weird. I chalked it up to the powdered sugar. He liked powdered sugar doughnuts, so it made sense, sort of, that he liked cookies with powdered sugar.

Years later, when a relative was sharing family secrets with me, I got an inkling of why he liked pfeffernuse cookies. My father had a German grandmother. It’s not surprising that I never heard of her. My parents were born during the Great Depression and grew up during World War II when everything German was bad. People of German descent were suspect so families with any German connections concealed that fact from everyone.

Pfeffernuse cookies were most likely a holiday tradition during my father’s childhood prior to WWII. The taste of them years later probably brought back fond memories for him. In honor of the woman I never knew, I made pfeffernuse cookies for Christmas.

I chose a recipe from Martha Stewart. Her cookies are always so buttery. I was a little concerned because the batter was very wet but I was able to roll it into balls with a little effort. The cookies baked up perfectly. Shaking them in the powdered sugar was fun. The taste was . . . well, I don’t know how my father could stand eating those hard, stale-tasting little cookies for so many years. These were soft and flavorful. They will become part of my holiday tradition.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

(source: Martha Stewart Holiday Baking 2002)

1 ¼ cups confectioners’ sugar
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup firmly packed light-brown sugar
1 large egg
¼ cup unsulfured molasses
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Place the confectioners’ sugar in a brown paper bag.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, nutmet, cloves, and baking soda. Set aside.

Place butter, brown sugar, and molasses in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Beat on medium until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla. With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture; beat until just combined. Pinch off dough in tablespoon amounts; roll into 1 ¼-inch balls. Arrange balls 1 ½ inches apart on prepared baking sheets. (Dough can be frozen at this point, covered tightly with plastic wrap, up to 1 month.)

Bake until cookies are golden and firm to the touch with slight crackng, about 15 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through. Transfer sheets to a wire rack to cool slightly, about 10 minutes. Working in batches, place cookies in paper bag; shake until well coated. Let cool completely on wire rack. Store in an airtight container.

Makes 3 dozen

Recycle: molasses bottle, vanilla bottle

Compost: egg shells

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Crazy for Cocktails: White Russian

Not being a black coffee drinker, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the Black Russian. I’m more of a café au lait person. I like a little coffee with my cream and sugar. So I was really looking forward to trying a White Russian.

Using the Kahlua recipe of 2 parts Kahlua and 1 part vodka, I added Half & Half but didn’t stir it. I’m learning mixology, the study of mixing cocktails, courtesy of Colleen Graham on I’ve learned important things like adding ingredients in the order in which they are given in the recipe. This makes sense to me as a cook and baker.

In the case of a White Russian cocktail, if you mix the cream into the other ingredients, it becomes another cocktail, a Dirty Bird. And I have to say, drinking the White Russian with the cream on top and the alcohol underneath gives the impression that you are drinking coffee ice cream with a kick. Yum!!

White Russian

2 parts Kahlua
1 part vodka
Add milk or cream

Pour over ice in a rocks glass.

Recycle: Kahlua bottle, vodka bottle

Monday, December 28, 2009

Crazy for Cocktails: Black Russian

When I saw that the recipe for the Chocolate Tart called for Kahlua, the ubiquitous TV commercials immediately sprang to mind. I had just visited the Bacardi site in search of a recipe for mojitos, so I searched the Kahlua site for cocktail recipes. There were about a dozen, two of which were popular when I was a child, Black Russian and White Russian.

I had often overheard these cocktails mentioned in adult conversations, but had never actually seen either one. I grew up in a dry household. Alcohol, kept in the cabinet over the refrigerator, was only served to guests. My parents didn’t drink. Or so they claimed. Teenagers are often awake late at night and that was when I discovered that Late Night with Johnny Carson wasn’t the only reason that my father stayed up later than my mother. He liked his Scotch. There were even rumors that at neighborhood parties, his consumption of Scotch had to be closely monitored lest he start trying on lampshades.

I opted to start with the Black Russian. The recipe was simple. 2 parts Kahlua, 1 part vodka, pour over ice in a rocks glass. Whatever that is. Unlike my parents, I do drink. Outside of my home. I keep no alcohol in my house. So I know nothing about barware. A little Googling led me to a wonderful columnist on, Colleen Graham. From her I learned that a “rocks glass” is that short, fat little glass from which my father drank his Scotch. I wasn’t about to run out and buy new glasses for a cocktail that I may or may not like. I settle on using my usual tall glasses. Having used them, I can see the wisdom of rocks glasses.

Interestingly enough, her recipe for Black Russian was the opposite of the Kahlua recipe. She uses 1 ¾ oz vodka, ¾ oz coffee liqueur, then instructs you to build the ingredients in an old-fashioned glass filled with ice and stir well. I decided to try both versions.

I started with Colleen’s recipe. It was okay. Nothing to write home about. Then I reversed the ratio with the Kahlua recipe, which turned out to be fabulous. I loved the smooth coffee flavor of the Kahlua with just a kick from the vodka. Hmmm . . . maybe I’ll go out and buy those glasses after all.

Black Russian

2 parts Kahlua
1 part vodka

Pour over ice in a rocks glass.

Recycle: Kahlua bottle, vodka bottle

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Chocolate Tart with Hazelnut Shortbread Crust

As long as I was going to be doing something completely different for Christmas dinner, I wanted something really spectacular for dessert. It would have to be chocolate and totally unlike anything I had ever attempted. That’s a pretty tall order. I surprised myself, finding exactly what I wanted rather quickly: Chocolate Tart with Hazelnut Shortbread Crust. Mmmm…chocolate…hazelnut…shortbread. Perfection.

I decided to go all out and buy a tart pan rather than making do with a pie plate. And so began The Great Tart Pan Hunt. The hunt spanned two days and three malls. I visited kitchen specialty stores including my favorite, Williams Sonoma, and various department stores. And came up empty. Either the store(s) didn’t carry tart pans or they had tart pans but in the wrong size or carried a glorified pie plate (slanted sides) with little ridges on the inside giving the illusion of a tart pan as opposed to a tart pan with straight, crimped sides.

In the end, I was forced to do what I had been trying to avoid. I went to There, I found a nice selection of tart pans in various sizes, manufacturers and materials. I read all of the reviews and ordered that one that best suited my recipe. I hate malls, especially during the holiday season, but in these difficult economic times, I was willing to make an exception and brave the crowds to help out my local brick and mortar stores. But I can’t help them if they don’t have the merchandise I need.

I had another briefer hunt, for unflavored gelatin. Three grocery stores before I found anything other than Jello. Buying Kahlua was a whole lot easier. In fact, I had a choice of sizes and purchased a smaller bottle. The recipe called for 1 tablespoon so normally I would have left it out, but I had other plans for the Kahlua. I did skip the hazelnut oil, substituting canola oil. I happened to have whole-wheat flour on hand. Not the pastry flour as called for in the recipe, but I thought I could substitute it with no problem. Another substitution that I made that worked out well was lightly rubbing canola oil on the tart pan in place of the recommended cooking spray of which I had none.

I used the egg whites from the two yolks instead of dried egg whites. There is a note accompanying this recipe that dried egg whites are pasteurized and a wise choice when making an uncooked filling. Thankfully, using raw egg whites was not detrimental to my health and I was able to sample this dish and review it.

When I first read over this recipe, it seemed incredibly complex. I hate recipes that have too many steps, but I found that by following each step exactly, everything flowed beautifully. It was surprisingly easy to make.

As for the taste, well that was a little disappointing. The hazelnut shortbread crust was heavenly. It would make a great cookie. The filling was too light, both the texture and the taste. I would have preferred a denser texture and more chocolate-y taste. Overall though, it wasn’t bad.

Verdict: Not bad, but I won’t be making this again

Chocolate Tart with Hazelnut Shortbread Crust
(source: EatingWell: November/December 2008)

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup hazelnuts
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons hazelnut oil, or canola oil
1 tablespoon ice water

1 ½ teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1 tablespoon water
¾ cup low-fat milk
2 large egg yolks
2 ½ tablespoons plus ¼ cup sugar, divided
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
1 tablespoon coffee liqueur, such as Kahlua (optional)
4 dried egg whites, reconstituted according to package directions (equivalent to 2 egg whites)
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 400°F.

To prepare crust: Coat a 9-inch tart pan with cooking spray. Combine whole-wheat pastry flour, ¼ cup all-purpose flour, hazelnuts, ¼ cup sugar and salt in a food processor; process until the nuts are finely ground. Add butter one piece at a time, pulsing once or twice after each addition, until incorporated. Add oil and ice water and pulse just until incorporated. Turn the dough out into the prepared pan (it will be crumbly), spread evenly and press firmly into the bottom and all the way up the sides to form a crust.

Bake the crust until set and the edges are beginning to brown, about 15 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack.

To prepare filling: Sprinkle gelatin over water in a small bowl; let stand, stirring once or twice, while you prepare the rest of the filling.

Heat milk in a medium saucepan over medium heat until steaming (but not boiling); remove from the heat to cool slightly.

Whisk egg yolks, 2 ½ tablespoons sugar and 1 tablespoon flour in a medium bowl until combined. Gradually whisk in ½ cup of the hot milk. Whisk the egg yolk mixture into the pan with the remaining hot milk. Return to the heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (do not boil), about 1 minute. Remove from the heat; whisk in chocolate until completely melted. Whisk in the softened gelatin and coffee liqueur (if using) until smooth.

Beat reconstituted egg whites and cream of tartar in a large bowl with an electric mixer on low speed until frothy. Increase speed to high and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add the remaining ¼ cup sugar and beat until stiff peaks form, 3 to 5 minutes. Gently fold the chocolate custard into the egg whites until blended. Spoon the filling into the crust; smooth the top with the back of a spoon and chill, uncovered, until set, about 1 hour.

Recycle: oil bottle, milk bottle, Kahlua bottle

Compost: egg shells

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Crazy for Cocktails: Mojito

I resisted the siren call of cable TV for years. I didn’t watch a lot of TV. I’m more of a book and movie person. Reality TV does nothing for me. Bachelors, Bachlorettes and Idols don’t do it for me. Nor do Big Brothers and Survivors. The internet, on the other hand, became a bigger and bigger part of my life. Banking, shopping, income taxes, blogging, email, I was spending more and more time online. Time to upgrade from dial-up.

After 14 months of DSL hell, I switched to cable. And discovered my television. Who knew that I could watch Law & Order any time, day or night? I began to branch out. CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Dexter and, my all-time favorite, House.

CSI: Miami fascinates me. No workplace could possibly function with that much cleavage being flashed around. Whenever the ME kneels over a corpse, I hold my breath waiting for a wardrobe malfunction. When the characters aren’t flashing cleavage or trying to ignore flashing cleavage, they’re offering someone a mojita, drinking a mojito or examining a corpse who died after drinking a mojita.

Which lead me to the logical question: what is a mojito? A little Googling told me that it is a drink made with rum. I just happened to have a bottle of rum in the house that was used in the Rum Balls. A quick visit to the Bacardi site and I added a lime and mint to my shopping list. I was making Cuban Pork for Christmas. Mojitos seemed the perfect accompaniment.

The pork was excellent. The mojito on the other hand was not a revelation. Since I was using sugar instead of simple syrup, I discovered that the ice prevented the sugar from being dissolved by the rum and club soda. So the second time (one always has to have a second drink, just to make sure) I poured the rum in before the ice, stirring to make sure the sugar was dissolved. The lime offset the taste of the rum and the mint added a refreshing touch, but it didn’t wow me so much that I wanted to run right out and buy a push-up bra.

Bacardi Mojito Cocktail

1 1/2 oz. Bacardi Superior Rum
12 fresh spearmint leaves
1/2 lime
2 Tbsp simple syrup (or 4 tsp sugar)
Top with club soda

Muddle mint leaves and lime in a tall glass. Cover with simple syrup and fill glass with ice. Add Bacardi Rum and club soda. Stir well. Garnish glass with lime wedge and sprigs. of mint.

Recycle: Rum bottle

Compost: lime, spearmint stems

Friday, December 25, 2009

Cuban Pork

After decades of doing the same things every Christmas, I decided this year would be different. Instead of a Christmas tree, I would make a gingerbread house. I would bake Christmas cookies, trying a new recipe every weekend. And I would finally end the annual torture inflicted on an innocent piece of roast beef.

My ancestry is mainly English. My family always had roast beef for Christmas in the place of the usual turkey. My mother was a champ at torturing roast beef. There was no medium or rare in her kitchen, only well-done which meant cooking the roast until it was blackened and half of its original size. Eating it was like chewing the proverbial shoe leather.

In my own kitchen, I aimed for rare but usually came up with medium on the outside, rare up to half an inch and raw the rest of the way. After failing year after year for three decades, I think that it’s time I added “properly cooking a roast beef” to the list of skills I am congenitally unable to master. Other items on the list include baking biscuits from scratch, drawing a straight line and crochet.

I pulled a recipe from my “Recipes To Try” folder on my computer that was completely different from my traditional holiday meal. It’s pork, it’s Cuban and it’s cooked in a crockpot. I wouldn’t even have to clean the oven afterwards. Perfect!

I had my doubts at first that I would be able to successfully cook this dish. I unknowingly brought home a pork shoulder with a bone. I’ve never cooked anything in a crockpot that had a bone in it. Would the bone explode? Get all mushy and yucky? Would the marrow melt out into the juices that would be needed when serving the pork?

Marinating is usually a great idea, but I didn’t have a bowl or baking dish large enough or deep enough to accommodate the shoulder of a large mammal. Nor did I have a bag of the correct size. In the end, I used a large salad bowl and (don’t read this if you’re squeamish), a 5-gallon (new, clean) trash bag. When I mixed the marinade (grapefruit juice! Whoda thunkit?), it smelled like garbage. I assured myself that it was just the cumin. After 24 hours, my entire refrigerator smelled like garbage. I was grateful to finally be able to pour the entire thing into my crockpot.

I am happy to report that the garbage smell was transformed into a savory aroma when cooked. So savory that the Fur Patrol was begging for scraps as I shredded the meat. Nothing bad happened to the bones. The meat literally fell off of them. Add onions and salsa and roll in a tortilla and I think I may have my new Christmas tradition. It was that good.

I have included the Pico de Gallo recipe that was part of the original recipe although I didn’t try it myself. I was feeling lazy and opted for a jar of organic salsa.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Cuban Pork

½ cup lime juice
¼ cup water
¼ cup grapefruit juice
3 cloves galic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 bay leaves
1 3-pound boneless pork shoulder roast
1 cup sliced onion
Vegetable-flavored flour tortillas or flour tortillas
Pico do Gall or bottled salsa
Lettuce or purchased avocado dip (optional)

For marinade, in a small bowl combine lime juice, water, grapefruit juice, garlic, oregano, salt, cumin, pepper, and bay leaves. Trim fat from meat. If necessary, cut roast to fit into slow cooker. With a large fork, pierce meat in several places. Place in a large plastic bag set in a deep bowl or a baking dish. Pour marinade over meat. Close bag. Chill in the refrigerator for 6 to 24 hour, turning occasionally.

In a 3-1/2- to 5-quart slow cooker place onion. Top with meat and marinade mixture.

Cover; cook on low-heat setting for 10 to 12 hours or on high-heat setting for 5 to 6 hours.

Transfer meat to a cutting board; cool slightly. Skim fat from juices; keep warm. Remove bay leaves; discard. Use 2 forks to gently separate the meat into shreds. Transfer shredded meat to a serving platter. With a slotted spoon, remove onions from juices. Transfer onions to same serving platter. Serve meat and onions in tortillas with small bowls of the hot juices and Pico de Gallo. If desired, pass lettuce and guacamole.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Pico de Gallo: In a medium bowl combine 2 peeled and finely chopped medium tomatoes, 2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion, 2 tablespoons snipped fresh cilantro, 1 teaspoon lime juice, ⅛ teaspoon salt, and dash sugar. Mx well. Cover; chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight. Makes about 1 ¼ cups.

Recycle: lime juice bottle, grapefruit juice bottle, salsa bottle

Compost: garlic skins, onion skins

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Cookie of the Week: Bacardi Rum Balls

The record breaking Nor’Easter that buried New Jersey over the weekend threatened to disrupt my holiday baking schedule. After shoveling my driveway , especially the huge wall of snow the plow left at the end, and my walk and front porch so that the mail carrier could get through (gotta love online shopping – your packages come to you!), I had no desire to spend several hours in the kitchen baking cookies.

So I put aside the recipe I had planned to bake and instead made Bacardi Rum Balls, a no-bake option that I had originally planned on making the same weekend that I made the Peppermint Bark, another no-bake recipe. I had overscheduled myself that weekend and ended up putting the Rum Balls recipe aside. This weekend was the perfect opportunity to revisit it. Just grind up first the walnuts and then the vanilla wafers in the food processor (no liquid, no mess), stir in honey and rum, and then sit comfortably while making 1-inch balls and rolling them in confectioners’ sugar.

Except that’s not what happened. Grinding up walnuts and vanilla wafers was a breeze. It was when I added the honey and rum that things began to go terribly wrong. There is too much liquid in this recipe. I tried adding more vanilla wafer crumbs hoping that they would soak up some of the liquid, but to no avail. The result was too sticky to roll and too wet to hold its shape. It also soaked up all of the confectioners’ sugar on its surface.

They passed the taste test though. Yum! They are quite addictive. And after an afternoon of flinging snow around, I definitely needed a drink.

Verdict: Needs work

Bacardi Rum Balls
(source: Bacardi Rum)

¼ cup Bacardi Gold rum
2 cups ground walnuts (from 2 ½ cups chopped walnuts)
1 ½ cups vanilla wafer crumbs
½ cup honey
Confectioners’ sugar

In a medium bowl, combine walnuts and wafer crumbs. Stir in Bacardi Gold and honey. Shape into 1-inch balls. Roll in confectioners’ sugar.

Store in tightly covered container.

Makes approximately 2 ½ dozen

Recycle: rum bottle, honey bottle

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Chicken Marsala with Mushrooms

This is an oldie but goodie, a leftover from the days when I was cooking for a picky eater who was only willing to try new dishes if they had mushrooms in them. I added mushrooms to a lot of recipes in an effort to get her to try new meals. When I went hunting for the origins of this recipe and found it in my 365 Ways to Cook Chicken, I was surprised to learn that I hadn’t added mushrooms. Instead, there are two very different versions of Chicken Marsala in the book, one with and one without mushrooms. After reviewing the version without the mushrooms, I think I’ll stick to this one.

I don’t pound the chicken breasts thin. They cook just fine in their normal plump state. And it was a lot easier to convince a picky eater to eat chicken that actually looked like chicken. I make my usual substitution of beef bouillon for beef stock. Really, other than would-be contestants on TV cooking shows, who has beef stock on hand these days? As for that “salt to taste”, it has been my unhappy experience that professional chefs like salt a whole lot more than I do. In the few restaurant versions I have sampled, salt has been added with such a heavy hand that it masks the delicate flavors of the wine and the chicken. I prefer my version.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Chicken Marsala with Mushrooms
(source: 365 Ways to Cook Chicken)

3 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, pounded to ¼-inch thickness
4 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, chopped
½ pound mushrooms, sliced
3 tablespoons dry Marsala
⅔ cup beef stock
Salt to taste

Mix flour and pepper in a shallow dish. Dredge chicken in flour mixture to coat; shake off excess.

In a large frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in oil over medium heat. Add chicken and cook until lightly brown, about 3 minutes a side. Remove and keep warm. Add onion and garlic and sauté until onion is tender, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until they are lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

Return chicken to pan, stir in Marsala and beef stock. Bring to a boil reduce heat, and simmer until liquid reduces by one-third. Whisk in remaining butter. Season with salt and additional pepper to taste.

Recycle: vegetable oil bottle, wine bottle

Compost: onion skins, garlic skins

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Cookie of the Week: Spritz

I cheated this week. I made a recipe that I’ve made before. Once. A long time ago. But nothing says Christmas like Spritz, so I got out the cookie press that has been gathering dust in the back of the cupboard and my trusty Betty Crocker cookbook and baked a batch of Spritz.

I chose the Betty Crocker recipe because I know that it works. I tried another Spritz recipe a few years ago that was a disaster. The problem was that it was too stiff. Comparing the two recipes, it was easy to see why. Betty uses significantly less flour and sugar. Fewer dry ingredients equals a wetter dough which is easier to push through the cookie press.

I was surprised at the saltiness of Betty’s dough. The salty taste is less noticeable after baking but still definitely there. I liked the taste of the other recipe better. Again, looking at both recipes, the reason was clear. Betty uses ½ teaspoon salt and salted butter. The other recipe uses unsalted butter and only a dash of salt. Hmmm . . . I see the beginnings of an OldRoses recipe, don’t you? A little experimentation with ingredients and I can probably come up with the perfect OldRoses’ Spritz recipe.

Using only ¼ of the dough at a time in the cookie press makes it easy to switch shapes. I made trees, wreaths, poinsettias and ornaments and decorated them with red and green sugars.

Verdict: Needs work

(source: Betty Crocker)

1 cup butter or margarine, softened
½ cup sugar
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 teaspoon almond extract or vanilla

Heat oven to 400°F. Cream butter and sugar. Blend in remaining ingredients. Fill cookie press with ¼ dough at a time; from desired shapes on ungreased baking sheet. Bake 6 to 9 minutes until set but not brown.

About 5 dozen cookies

Recycle: almond extract or vanilla bottle

Compost: eggshells

Monday, December 14, 2009

Baked Steak Burritos

This is one of those recipes that is made with totally fake ingredients but I thought that if I liked it enough it would be worth trying to duplicate like the macaroni and cheese. In fact, my version might even be better.

First, though, a word on those ingredients. Have you tried to buy cheese lately? Almost all of it is low-fat. Besides not tasting right, it doesn’t cook right. Really nasty stuff. It took some digging around the dairy case, but I finally found some “real” cheese. My fellow Americans, please eat less and exercise more so that we put this low-fat nonsense behind us.

My first quibble with this recipe is the steak. I wasn’t really thrilled at cooking it in half a cup of butter but trying to stuff the tacos with “bite-sized” strips and then trying to actually eat tacos stuffed with “bite-sized” pieces, which kept falling out, made the whole thing a waste of time. This would work much better made with lean ground beef. No need for butter and no pieces of steak sliding down your chin as you try to eat your dinner.

My next problem was the size of the flour tortillas. The recipe calls for fajita-sized tacos, but they are way too small to properly fold and roll. Large tortillas would work much better.

And lastly, one 13x9-inch baking dish is also too small. I was only able to fit 9, not 12 burritos in mine. Which is pottery. I don’t have a glass dish that size.

When all was said and done, this recipe tasted remarkably like chimichangas, a recipe which I don’t believe I’ve ever reviewed here. I hardly ever make it since my daughter left home. She was the one who liked it. I wasn’t thrilled with the taste and all those tortillas were a pain to fill and roll. The best part was that the leftover chimichangas froze well to be thawed and reheated at a later date when I needed something quickly for dinner but had no time to cook.

I froze the leftover burritos. It remains to be seen if they will also thaw and reheat well.

In the end, this recipe just wasn’t worth playing around with. I really have no desire to eat any version of it again.

Verdict: Not bad, but I don’t think that I’ll be making this one again.

Baked Steak Burritos

½ cup butter or margarine
1 package (1.25 oz) taco seasoning mix
1 ½ lb beef boneless sirloin tip steak, cut into thin bite-size strips
1 can (16 oz) refried beans
1 package (10.5 oz) flour tortillas for soft tacos & fajitas (12 tortillas)
2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese (8 ox)
3 medium green onions, thinly sliced (3 tablespoons)
1 can (10 oz) enchilada sauce
1 cup shredded Mexican cheese blend (4 oz)

Heat oven to 400°F. In 10-inch skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in taco seasoning mix. Add beef strips; cook 5 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until desired doneness; drain.

Meanwhile, place refried beans in microwavable dish. Microwave uncovered on High 2 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Spread each tortilla with refried beans to within ¼ inch of edge. Top each with beef, Cheddar cheese and onions. Roll up, folding in sides. In ungreased 13x9-inch (3 quart) glass baking dish, place burritos with seam sides down. Pour enchilada sauce over burritos. Sprinkle with Mexican cheese blend.

Bake uncovered 7 to 12 minutes or until burritos are thoroughly heated and cheese is melted.

Recycle: refried beans can, enchilada sauce can

Compost: green onion greens

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Wooden Spoon Cooks hold a Bûche de Noël Contest

Last fall, the Wooden Spoon cooks were part of a group that took a trip to Frelinghuysen Arboretum (see the report here). While there, we saw a flyer for an upcoming workshop on how to make a Bûche de Noël, which is a traditional French dessert. It’s basically a jelly roll cake – a thin layer of cake rolled up with filling inside – decorated to look like a log (“Bûche de Noël” is French for “Christmas Log”). We decided that we would each make one for the Rutgers Gardens holiday potluck, and let the other guests choose their favorite. The results – at the party – are shown above. For the recipes, look here and here.

Cranberry-Orange Relish with Walnuts

This recipe is slightly modified from the one I made for our last Wooden Spoon Thanksgiving two years ago. I cut the original recipe in half, cut the spices in half again (i.e. 1/4 the original), and added walnuts, to meet the requirement that everything at this dinner have nuts. The recipe I actually made is given below; for the original recipe, see here.

Because there was less, I was able to make this easily in a 2 quart saucepan. This amount is probably enough for 4 people at least. Maybe because there was less, the relish started to scorch near the end of the cooking time, but fortunately this didn’t seem to affect the flavor. It also got darker and thicker than I remember, but that’s okay. Even with half the amount of ginger and cinnamon, I felt it was plenty spicy. You might want to cut back still further.

I added walnuts because I had seen other relish recipes that included them. We decided that this was an excellent idea. The walnuts add more texture, and the flavor complements the rest of the relish well. I added them late in the cooking process because I thought they might get soggy if I put them in earlier, but I haven’t actually tested this.

Addendum, 1/10/10: I made this again as below but with only half the amount (i.e. 1/2 tsp each) of ginger and cinnamon. I think this is about the right amount. Also, you might want to reduce the amount of walnuts a little, say to 1/3 cup.

Verdict: Yum! This one's a keeper!

Cranberry-Orange Relish with Walnuts
(source: modified from a recipe in USA Weekend, Nov. 13, 2005)

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup honey

2 cups orange juice

1 tsp ground ginger

grated zest of 1 orange

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 bag fresh cranberries

½ cup chopped walnuts

1 tsp salt

In a medium-sized, heavy saucepan over low heat, combine the sugar, honey, and orange juice. Simmer until completely dissolved. Add ginger, zest, and cinnamon; stir to combine. Add the cranberries and simmer, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until mixture begins to thicken, about two hours. Add the walnuts after about an hour and a half. When thickened, add salt. Chill and serve.

Recycle: honey jar

Compost: ginger peels

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Buche de Noel

When I agreed to the Buche de Noel Bake-off, I was certain that I had several recipes at home. I distinctly remembered seeing them. My memory was faulty, however. When I finally took a look at my numerous cookbooks, not a single one had a recipe for a Buche de Noel, not even my beloved Betty Crocker International Cookbook.

Normally at this point, I would have hit the internet but my computer monitor was in its death throes and reading anything on it was next to impossible. I was planning on replacing it during the Black Friday sales. The Gardens’ Holiday Party was the following week which was too close for me. I like to have lots of time to research.

Time to get creative. I pulled out all the cooking magazines and articles with Christmas recipes that I had cut out of newspapers and magazines over the years and voila! I found what I was looking for in the same Woman’s Day Great Holiday Baking Ideas from December 1980 that I had used to made the rum cake recipe. You can tell that this is an old recipe. The nut filling calls for cocktail peanuts and the frosting uses margarine! What I found attractive is that the frosting is coffee (“mocha” in modern parlance) instead of the usual chocolate.

I allotted an entire day to make this recipe but it was faster and easier than I had anticipated. My one complaint about the cake portion (other than the near-death experience in a ShopRite parking lot) is that it uses too many bowls. You need one for the egg whites, one for the egg yolks and a third for the sifted dry ingredients. Three dirty bowls and I hadn’t even made the filling or frosting yet. I don’t have a dishwasher so this is a real hardship.

I skipped the peanuts in the nut filling. I could have substituted something more appropriate but I didn’t want a “crunchy” log. Just as I feared, when I tried to roll up the log after spreading it with the filling, I found that if I rolled it too tightly, the filling was squeezed out of it but if I rolled it too loosely, it wouldn’t hold its shape and unrolled. I compromised, rolling it up somewhere between tightly and loosely resulting in a round log with minimal oozing of the filling.

At this point in the recipe, you are instructed to cut a diagonal slice about 2-inches at its wide side from one end of the rolled cake and reattach it to look like a branch. I’m not good at this artsy stuff. By this time, I had a new monitor and could explore the world of Buche de Noel making. After looking at numerous photos of the finished product, it was clear that the only bakers able to pull this off were professionals. The homemade logs with branches looked, well, homemade.

The frosting was the most difficult part. Two tablespoons of instant coffee is too much. Or maybe it’s just me. I don’t like strong coffee. I’m more of a café au lait person. Then there was the problem of the consistency. Even with 3 ½ cups of confectioners’ sugar, the frosting was a little runny. I tried refrigerating it briefly but then it became too stiff and the texture was grainy.

Eventually, I ended up with a sad, half-rolled-up Yule log covered with both runny and grainy frosting. It looked a little bare so I fished a cheesy decoration from an old wreath out of my Christmas decorations box for a festive touch.

Yes, I know. You’re not laughing at me, you’re laughing with me.

Verdict: Not bad, but I don’t think I’ll be making this one again.

Buche de Noel
(source: Woman's Day Great Holiday Baking Ideas, December 1980)

1 cup cake flour
1/3 cup cocoa
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
4 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
½ cup confectioners’ sugar

Cream Nut Filling
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
½ cup confectioners’ sugar
½ cup finely chopped cocktail peanuts

Coffee Frosting
½ cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons instant coffee
½ cup margarine
3 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar

Grease and line with waxed paper a 15x10x1-inch jelly roll pan; set aside. Sift together cake flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt; set aside. In large bowl of mixer, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. In small bowl of mixer beat egg holds until thick and lemon colored. Gradually beat sugar and water into yolks. Fold egg yolk mixture into beaten egg whites alternately with flour mixture. Turn into prepared jelly roll pan; spread smoothly. Bake in 350°F oven 15 to 20 minutes or until cake springs back when pressed gently with finger. Immediately turn out onto a towel sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. Remove waxed paper. While cake is hot, roll up in towel starting from narrow end. Cool thoroughly on wire rack. Unroll cake; remove towel and spread cake with Cream Nut Filling. Roll again. Cut a diagonal slice about 2-inches at its wide side, from one end of tolled cake. Set in place with a little Coffee Frosting on the side of rolled cake to resemble a cut branch. Cover entire cake with remaining Coffee Frosting. Mark with spatula for a bark effect. Refrigerate until serving time. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Cream Nut Filling
Beat 1 ¼ cups heavy cream with ½ cup confectioners’ sugar just until stiff peaks form. (Do not overbeat.) Fold in ½ cup finely chopped cocktail peanuts.

Coffee Frosting
Heat ½ cup heavy cream with 2 tablespoons instant coffee until coffee dissolves; cool. Cream ½ cup margarine until light and fluffy. Gradually add cooled cream and enough confectioners’ sugar, about 3 ½ cups, to make a spreadable frosting.

Recycle: instant coffee bottle

Compost: eggshells

Monday, December 07, 2009

Christmas Cookie of the Week: Peppermint Bark

This is a recipe that I bookmarked weeks ago. It seemed easy and fun. When I came up with the idea of “Christmas Cookie of the Week”, it was a perfect candidate.

It is indeed easy. So easy in fact that even I, as artistically challenged as I am, was able to swirl the red color attractively through the melted chips. My only quibble with this recipe is that ½ cup of crushed peppermints is too much. ¼ cup would be plenty.

Just for the record, 5 candy canes equals ½ cup. In case you were wondering. Leftover candy canes are hung on the Christmas tree. Recycling at its finest!

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Peppermint Bark

1 package (12 ounces) white chocolate chips
1 teaspoon peppermint extract (optional)
8 to 10 drops red food color or 8 to 10 drops green food color
½ cup crushed peppermint candies or candy canes

Microwave chocolate chips in large microwavable bowl on HIGH for 1 ½ to 2 minutes or until almost melted, stirring after 1 minute. Stir until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is smooth. Stir in peppermint extract, if desired.

Spread on large foil-lined baking sheet to ¼-inch thickness. Add food color, drop by drop, over mixture. Using a wooden skewer, swirl color through chocolate. Sprinkle with crushed candies, pressing lightly into chocolate with spatula.

Refrigerate about 10 minutes or until firm. Break into irregular pieces to serve. Store in covered container at cool room temperature or in refrigerator up to 5 days.

Recycle: peppermint extract bottle, food color bottle

Friday, December 04, 2009

Christmas Cookie of the Week: Gingerbread Cookies

Every year, December comes and goes as I attend to the holiday rush of parties, shopping and decorating while trying to keep to my usual schedule of trying one or two new recipes a week. Then January rolls around and I think to myself that I should have baked Christmas cookies. Baking Christmas cookies was not a tradition in my family so it’s not something that I associate with the holidays.

This year, I wanted to break out of my usual holiday routine and try some new things. Christmas cookies immediately came to mind. So please join me in my new tradition of Christmas Cookie of the Week. I will be trying out a new Christmas cookie recipe each week and sharing the results with you here.

My very first recipe is a time-honored one: gingerbread men. I had volunteered to make up a batch for an event at Rutgers Gardens. A long time ago, I had made the gingerbread men recipe from my Betty Crocker cookbook. Last weekend, I decided to try the recipe from the bottle of Grandma’s Molasses. It uses cloves instead of allspice and butter instead of shortening which should result in a richer cookie.

The dough came together well and rolled very easily. My mistake with this recipe was greasing the cookie sheets. Not having any cooking spray on hand, I used shortening. I must have been a little heavy handed because the first batch of cookies spread out all over the cookie sheets. The second batch baked perfectly.

I didn’t decorate the cookies because they were to be decorated by attendees at the HollyDay event. They looked great, but were too soft for their intended use. I was also unhappy with the taste. Too spicy. More ginger snap than ginger cookie. I will go back to my trusty Betty Crocker recipe next year. Look for it in December 2010.

Verdict: Not bad, but I won’t be making these again

Gingerbread Cookies
(source: Grandma’s Molasses bottle)

8 tablespoon butter (1 stick)
½ cup sugar
½ cup molasses
1 egg
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves

Beat butter with sugar and molasses. Mix in egg. Sift dry ingredients and mix into wet mixture. Chill in freezer 1 hour or in refrigerator 2 hours. Heat oven to 350°F. Roll out portion of dough ¼” thick on lightly floured board. Chill remaining dough. Cut with cookie cutter, place on greased baking sheets and decorate with raisins, chips or nuts, if desired. Bake 8-10 minutes. Cool.

3 dozen

Recycle: molasses bottle

Compost: eggshells

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dry-Brined Turkey

A wanted to make chestnut stuffing for our nutty dinner so I found myself for the first time ever cooking an unstuffed turkey. It somehow seemed wrong. An empty turkey. So I surfed the internet for something, anything to put in the turkey.

A recipe in the New York Times (I know, I know) caught my eye. The turkey, a heritage bird, was first brined, then stuffed with thyme, parsley, onions and apples. I had heard about brining, that it was supposed to enhance the moisture in the bird. That seemed a healthier alternative to my usual “baste with butter”.

It struck me as odd, though, that the bird was thoroughly salted and then refrigerated for two days. Isn’t salt usually used in that manner to dry foods as a means of preserving them? I surfed some more and discovered that the term brining usually refers to soaking the bird in salt water and then rinsing it thoroughly. Which makes so much more sense if you plan on eating it in the near future, rather than months from now as famine sets in.

It had only been a few days since the bubbling cauldron of doom so I was in no mood to risk the centerpiece of our meal to an unproven method that was not only counter-intuitive but also the complete opposite of what sensible people are doing and have been successfully doing for years. I also skipped the bizarre cooking temperatures.

Instead, I went straight to the peppering and stuffing of the turkey with the apples (who’da thunkit?), onions, thyme and parsley. And instead of rubbing the butter under the skin, I melted the butter and then used it to baste the turkey as it roasted in my usual (and always successful) 325°F newly-cleaned oven.

Scrumptious is the word that comes to mind. The bird was moist and flavorful. As was the gravy. Next year, I’m going to replace my cheap roasting pan with a real roasting pan that can be used on top of the stove so that I can try deglazing it with white wine. The resulting gravy should be heavenly.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Dry-Brined Turkey
(source: New York Times, November 11, 2009)

1 12-16-pound turkey, preferably a heritage or pasture raised bird
½ cup kosher salt, more if needed
1 tablespoon black pepper
10 sprigs fresh thyme
½ bunch flat leaf parsley
2 small onions, halved
2 small apples, cored and halved
½ cup butter
½ cup white wine (optional)

Two days before serving, rinse turkey and pat dry. Rub all over with kosher salt, slipping salt under skin where possible and rubbing some into cavities. Use about 1 tablespoon per four pounds of bird.

Wrap bird in a large plastic bag and place in refrigerator. On second night, turn turkey over. A couple of hours before cooking, remove turkey from bag and pat dry. Place in roasting pan and allow to come to room temperature.

Heat oven to 450°F. Sprinkle half the pepper into main cavity of turkey; add thyme, parsley, half the onions and half the apples. Truss legs with kitchen twine. Put remaining apples and onions in neck opening and tuck neck skin under bird.

Rub butter under breast skin and onto thigh meat. Sprinkle bird with remaining pepper.

Roast for 30 minutes. Remove turkey from oven, reduce heat to 350°F and cover breast of bird and wing tips with foil. Add a cup and a half of water or white wine to bottom of roasting pan and roast bird for another two hours, depending on size; figure 12 minutes a pound for an unstuffed bird. Remove foil in last half-hour so breast browns.

When turkey has roasted for two hours, begin to test for doneness by inserting a meat thermometer (digital is best) into two places in thighs, making sure not to touch bone. It should be at about 160°F.

When roasting is done, tip turkey so interior juices run back into pan. Remove turkey to a separate baking sheet or serving platter, cover with foil and then a damp kitchen towel and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes.

Pour fat and drippings from pan into a measuring cup. Deglaze pan with white wine or broth and pour that into same measuring cup. Fat and drippings can then be used to make gravy.

Yield: About a pound a person.

Recycle: wine bottle

Compost: parsley stems, onion skins, apple cores

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Herbed Mashed Potatoes

A and I agreed, theme or no theme, it’s just not Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes. I could have made the Perfect Mashed Potatoes that I made for our last Thanksgiving but there’s no fun in that. Trying new recipes is what our holiday meals and this blog is all about.

I began a hunt for a recipe for herbed mashed potatoes. There are quite a few of them. Using quite a selection of herbs. My objection to almost all of them is that the herbs are mixed into the potatoes. I didn’t want mashed potatoes with little green bits in them any more than I wanted mashed potatoes with nuts in them. Martha came to my rescue. She offers a recipe where the herbs are infused into the cream (or milk).

There were only two of us dining so I bought 5 medium potatoes rather than the 6 large ones called for. I could always cut down slightly on the butter and cream. Yes, I use cream. It’s Thanksgiving. It only happens once a year. A little cream is not going to kill us. Once I had the potatoes peeled, chunked and merrily boiling away, I chopped the sage, rosemary and thyme and added them to the cream to quietly meld their flavors on a back burner while the more demanding recipes occupied my attention on the front burners.

The next step, of course, is to drain and mash the potatoes with the butter and cream. That meant that I was going to have the dreaded green bits in my potatoes. The solution was simply to strain out the herbs and just add the cream infusion to the potatoes so that you have the flavor without the greenery. A word to the wise: if you lack a strainer as I do, a flour sifter comes in handy.

At this point, with the soup refusing to thicken and the turkey “resting” and taking up valuable counter space, I decided to attempt gravy for the first time in my life under the tutelage of A who made a wonderful gravy at our last Thanksgiving dinner and made it look so easy. Fat was skimmed, pans were re-arranged on the stove, flour was whisked and I completely forgot to add salt, pepper and parsley to the mashed potatoes.

So they were a little bland. But I still found myself humming my way to Scarborough Fair with “…parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme…”.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Herbed Mashed Potatoes
(source: Marth Stewart Living, September/October 1991)

6 large white potatoes, peeled and cut into medium chunks
Pinch of salt
1 cup heavy cream or milk
1 tablespoon each of chopped fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme
4 tablespoon (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Put potato chunks in a large saucepan over high heat and cover with cold water. Add salt and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine cream and all the herbs except parsley and bring to a simmer. Turn off heat and cover, allowing herbs to infuse for 15 minutes.

Drain potatoes well and pass through a food mill (or use a masher). Add butter and gradually stir in cream until potatoes have the desired consistency (you may not use all the cream).

Stir in parsley, season with additional salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Compost: Potato skins, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme stems

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Nut Bread

It’s really scary when you find a pan in your cupboard that you have no recollection of buying or using. It’s even scarier when it’s the exact size that you need for a recipe you are making for the first time. I found myself in this predicament as I searched through my baking pans to see if I had a second 8 ½-inch loaf pan. I was certain that I didn’t have any 9-inch loaf pans. Certain, that is, until I came across one. Looking all shiny and new, it seemed to mock me as I wracked my brain for an explanation for its presence amongst my well-known and well-worn baking pans. For what recipe had I bought it? Had I ever used it? I still don’t have any answers, but I do have a very nice loaf of nut bread thanks to the mystery pan.

I like dinner rolls with my Thanksgiving meals. Every year I try a different recipe, looking for the perfect roll: light, not too yeasty, not too dense, just dense enough to sop up excess gravy and cranberry sauce. I don’t know of a single dinner roll recipe that contains nuts or has the word nuts in the title. Since I was eschewing the nut theme in favor of mashed potatoes, I decided I would have to do without dinner rolls this Thanksgiving and have nut bread instead.

Much like the butternut squash soup, there are many variations on nut bread. And, like the butternut squash soup, after ten or twenty recipes and careful consideration, I decided on plain, old nut bread. Nothing fancy. No embellishments or chichi ingredients. I dove into my trusty old Betty Crocker cookbook and came up with a nut bread recipe so simple and basic that, with the exception of the nuts, I had all of the ingredients on hand already.

The recipe calls for finely chopped nuts, so I used nut topping. I think next time, I will go with more coarsely chopped nuts. This bread was too “crunchy”. I prefer “chunky”. I was happy that I ended up with one loaf rather than two loaves although nut bread does freeze very easily. It was nice to be able to simply give half to A to take home and enjoy.

Verdict: Yum!! This one’s a keeper!!

Nut Bread
(source: Betty Crocker cookbook)

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
3 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons salad oil
1 ¼ cups milk
1 egg
1 cup finely chopped nuts

Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 9x5x3-inch loaf pan or two 8 ½x4 ½x2 ½-inch loaf pans. Measure all ingredients into large mixer bowl; beat on medium speed ½ minute, scraping side and bottom of bowl constantly.

Pour into pan(s). Bake 55 to 65 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from pan; cool thoroughly before slicing.

Recycle: salad oil bottle

Compost: eggshell