Monday, November 28, 2011

Candy + Carols = Cops

Song Pairing:
Caroling Medley by The Osmonds
This medley is the absolute most fun song to sing along to during the holidays.  I love switching between the different parts - soprano, second soprano, alto, tenor.  I find it so fun to sing that I have been known to get a little carried away in my "performance" that I lose all perspective of where I am or what I'm doing.  Take, for instance, the year I was driving my daughters and I to Salt Lake City for our annual Day-After-Thanksgiving overnight shopping trip.  We had just pulled off the interstate and were working our way into the downtown traffic.  This song came on and I was just a-hollering it out, singing with gusto when I noticed some sparkly lights in my rearview mirror.  It's Christmas time so I'm thinking everything is sparkly, right?  Well, yes.  Even police cars.  Now, I was either giving such a wonderful performance that they decided an impromptu parade was in order and I was being escorted by local authorities on the parade route OR I'd done something wrong.  I decided it was wise to find out so I pulled over.  I turned down the stereo so I could hear what the gentleman had to say.  I'm thinking he had already heard the festivities though.  Well, it wasn't a parade - surprise, surprise!  I pleaded my case and explained that I wasn't paying attention to my speed because I had been so caught up in the holiday spirit with song!  I'm not remembering him giving me a ticket, just a friendly warning to try to keep my caroling enthusiasm under control while operating a moving vehicle.  I promised - and I have.  Of course, every single year since then I get the "remember when Mom got pulled over" reminder from my girls.  Aaahhh - holiday memories! 

Traditions are born out of all sorts of situations.  Sometimes they are deliberate but the best ones just sort of happen.  Like this one -

One year I decided to take my oldest daughter, who was 11 at the time, on an overnight shopping trip the day after Thanksgiving.  Our relationship wasn't going in the direction I had hoped it would and thought this might help us out.  We could see the lights and shop and talk.  I learned a great deal about myself on that first trip - things that I knew had to change immediately if I was going to be the mother I had always wanted to be.  I was just having a hard time figuring it out.  I was pleased when, on the way home, she asked if we could do it again the next year.  We did.  And every year since then.  That was 1993.  My younger daughters grew to look forward to the year they turned 11 and then could join us on the trip.

The agenda of the trip changes each year, depending on what's going on in everyone's lives.  Sometimes we are looking for a dress for a Christmas dance at school or sometimes it's just putting our heads together to come up with some ideas for those hard-to-buy-for folks on our lists.  As we have gotten older, our trips now include a beautiful daughter-in-law as well.  We now have trips where we are looking for maternity clothes or clothes for arriving babies.  One memorable year we received texts from one of the guys back at "home base" informing us that my daughter's boyfriend who had come to Thanksgiving dinner was, at that moment, in my husband's office asking for her hand in marriage.  You can imagine the amount of jumping around the hotel room and squeals of delight that produced!  Joy!

The thing about this tradition is that it sort of smashed right into another tradition that we already had in place.  Ever since I was married, the day after Thanksgiving was the candy making day at my mother-in-law's.  All my sisters in law and I, and eventually granddaughters, would gather to help.  She made a massive amount of confections each year and everyone looked forward to receiving their box.  My mother-in-law had already spent hours making up the fondants.  We would show up and start chopping the chocolate brick into small pieces, take turns manning the caramel station, and chop and/or arrange nuts for the turtles.  We would play Christmas music and spend most of the day stirring, chopping, and dipping.  It was great fun!

When my shopping trip "experiment" became such a success I couldn't turn my back on it.  However, my girls loved the candy making as well.  It was a real struggle.  We finally came up with a compromise.  We would get up early and be packed and ready to go when we left for Grandma's house.  We would spend the morning making candy and then excuse ourselves after lunch to head out on the shopping adventure - which was really a cover for the best opportunity I had all year to really bond with my girls.

I regret now that I didn't pay much attention to  the whole candy making process.  Those were the years that I hated to cook.  I was there for the female company and being able to take home my glorious box of goodies at the end of the day.  Now, though, I really want to know how to do all the things my mother-in-law did behind the scenes before we all showed up.  I also want to learn to make caramel although I'm not a caramel lover - but my husband is!

In the meantime, I want to share this recipe that I stumbled onto for fudge from Giada De Laurentiis.  It is super simple and has possibilities for all sorts of modifications.  I understand that it isn't considered a "true fudge" but seeing as how I'm allergic to something in "true fudge," I'll take this shortcut any day!  It's so creamy and it's a great start to one of my new cooking resolutions for the new year - learn to make some candy, girl!!

I'll just give the recipe to you straight from Giada:

Cinnamon Chocolate Fudge
Printable Recipe Card
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
2 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. vanilla extract
1 lb. bittersweet chocolate or semi-sweet chocolate chips
3 T. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, room temperature
Kosher or flake salt, optional, for sprinkling over the top

Spray a small 8" square pan.  Line it with a piece of parchment paper cut to 14x7, letting the extra to hang over the sides.  These will be the "handles" you'll use to lift the fudge out of the pan after it cools.  Set aside.

Create a double boiler by placing a stainless steel or tempered glass bowl inside of a pan filled with an inch of water.  The bowl should not touch the surface of the water.  Bring the water to a simmer

In the bowl, combine the condensed milk, cinnamon, and vanilla.  Stir in the chocolate and butter.  Gently stir the mixture over the simmering water until the chocolate has melted and the mixture has become smooth.  This takes about 6 - 8 minutes. 

Use a spatula and scrape the mixture into your prepared pan and smooth and tap the top.  At this time, garnish with the salt if you like.  Place in the refrigerator for a couple hours to cool and become firm.

When it's firm, lift out of the pan by the parchment paper "handles" and place on a cutting board.  You may need to run a warm knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the fudge.  Use a long knife that can reach across the entire length for nice, clean cuts.  I cut mine into 64 little squares, making 8 cuts across one way and then again the other.

You can do many different things to fancy these cuties up.  These ones are intended for some good friends so I melted some white chocolate chips in a disposable pastry bag, snipped of a bit of the tip, and piped on their initials.  You can be fancy or plain!

You could also think of the game enthusiasts on your list!  They make darling dice!

Personally, I like the squiggles the best.  Squiggle diagonally, or straight down the middle.  Add some swirls here and there, too.  

Other ideas:  

Sprinkle some tinted decorating sugar while the piping is still wet and shake off the excess. 
 Add chopped nuts to the fudge and then put a dab of the melted chocolate to place a nut on top as well.
Add shelled pistachios to the fudge and use cardamom in place of the cinnamon.
Add dried fruit, such as apricots or pineapple.

Store in the refrigerator or freezer!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Haven't We Met Before?

Song Pairing:
Here You Come Again by Dolly Parton
I needed a song about do-overs since today's post is about using up some of that leftover turkey.  I particularly like the phrase in the song, "looking better than a body has a right to" in conjunction with this recipe.  What's not to love about bubbly cheese and toasted bread crumbs over noodles dressed in the most heavenly sauce you've ever tasted?  The flavor of this dish will be "fill in' up your senses" and make you swoon.  I'm talkin' Bradley-Cooper-swoon!  I'm talking' Bradley-Cooper-speaking-fluent-french swoon!!!  As a matter of fact, after my daughter and I made this and we did the final taste of the sauce I declared that I would be happy to serve this on Thanksgiving Day and never mind with the big roasted bird!  Believe me when I say that you will not mind opening up the refrigerator and seeing turkey . . . again.

A popular thing for people to do this time of year is list their absolute favorite part of the Thanksgiving feast.  You hear about the wonderful sweet potatoes with toasted marshmallows that Aunt Mabel brings or a particular type of pie from Grandma.  Or maybe it's your mother's hot, buttery rolls.  

The most heated debate is usually about the stuffing.  I've come to believe that, if you've had a stuffing made well, you love it.  If you've been subjected to years and years of slimy mush or cardboard dry stuffing, you hate it.  Plain and simple.  There's usually no ambivalence on the subject.  For most of my life stuffing was my favorite part of the meal.  I'd get looks of shock when I'd announce this.  But most people never had my father's stuffing.  I tried and tried to reproduce it, with phone calls to him every year to figure out just what it was I was missing.  Mine was good, it just wasn't amazing.  I truly believe in a culinary "touch" that certain people have and Dad had this in abundance.  Sadly, he passed away 16 years ago so there's no way of ever reaching the goal of his stuffing perfection.  I'll just have to settle for really good stuffing.  And pie has stepped up to be my favorite part of the feast!

Surprisingly, amid the heated discussions as to which part of the meal is the best, it is the main attraction - the turkey - that abounds with indifference.  It's the star of the show, right there in the middle of the table, all golden brown and, hopefully, succulent!  The carving of it is supposed to be an honor.  People might haggle a bit about light meat vs. dark meat, but, if you want to get people's hearts racing you'll want to bring up the side dishes!

I'd like to help out Mr. Tom Turkey and bring him the respect he deserves.  It may be the next day but, after you taste this, you'll be happy to give him the traditional start the first time around, knowing that you have this delectable dish waiting for you later in the week!  This recipe gives turkey such a great do-over!  You'll open the fridge and as your eyes rest on that platter of leftover bird you'll "smile that little smile" as you say, "Here you come again!"

My daughter makes this recipe often when she entertains, using ground turkey in place of the cubed leftover turkey.  I was happy that she was home for the holiday and agreed to help me with today's post.

It begins with chopping onions.

I left the room and returned to find her "in" the freezer.

She claims this helps when the onions make her "cry."  Oh well - to each his own!

Here's the recipe!

Turkey Noodle Casserole
adapted from Rachel Ray's recipe
printable recipe

1/2 pound extra wide noodles
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil
3 slices bacon, chopped
2 cups chopped, cooked turkey
1 lb sliced white mushrooms
1/2 onion, chopped
Black Pepper
Kosher Salt
3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped
1 t. poultry seasoning
1/2 c. white wine
1 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. heavy cream
1/4 t. nutmeg
3 c. grated cheese, we used a combination of cheddar and italian cheeses
1 c. bread crumbs

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil.  When it comes to a boil, add a small handful of kosher salt to season the water and add the pasta.  Cook about 2 minutes less than package calls for as you will be cooking the noodles further in the baking process.  Strain.

Either coat a 9x13 casserole dish or individual serving dishes with spray.

Heat a large, deep skillet over medium high heat.  Add the olive oil and then add the bacon.  Cook bacon for 3 minutes, until it starts to brown.

Add the mushrooms and onions and cook for about 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper and add the thyme leaves and poultry seasoning and stir.  Cook another 5 minutes.

There will be lots of lovely bits on the bottom of the pan.  This is called a "fond" and this is where the best part of your flavor is living.  To bring this flavor into your dish you need to deglaze the pan.  Do this by pouring in the wine and using your wooden spoon to scrape up those bits from the bottom of the pan.  Add the chicken stock and stir.

When the liquid is bubbly, stir in the cream and reduce the heat to low.  Add the nutmeg and taste and adjust your seasonings.  (Heads up - this is where you will swoon!  You won't believe the flavor!)

Heat the broiler.

Add the cooked noodles and turkey to the sauce and stir to coat well.  Fill the casserole dish or the individual serving dishes with the mixture.  Sprinkle liberally with the cheese and then the bread crumbs.

Place under the broiler and watch carefully.  They're done when it's a lovely golden brown and the cheese is bubbly.

A great idea for this dish is to use individual serving dishes that can go from freezer to oven or microwave. Prepare a big batch and wrap each dish well with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator or freezer.  When you are ready to use them, heat oven to 350 degrees, unwrap the plastic, and bake for 30 minutes.  You can turn on the broiler for the last few minutes to get that lovely crust.  If using from a frozen state you'll need to put it in the refrigerator to thaw.  Simply take it from the freezer to the fridge in the morning and it should be ready to bake by dinner time.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Underneath It All

Song Pairing:
Underneath It All by No Doubt
I needed a song today that talked about the surprises that linger beneath the surface.  Just looking at that picture of today's Pumpkin Spice Cupcake with Vanilla Bean Buttercream Frosting you might hope, but not entirely be sure, that there's a creamy filling awaiting you.  Gwen Stefani tells us that "There's times when I want something more . . ."  Don't we all?  Well, I can tell you that this cupcake is "really lovely underneath it all."  I can also promise you that you'll want to love it "underneath it all."  And, if you are already familiar with the song, you can probably guess that next I'm going to tell you that it's "really lucky underneath it all."

While top billing on this cupcake goes to the pumpkin I'd like to address another key ingredient.


Cinnamon is one of the hardest working backup singers around.  It gets the spotlight now and then, but, for the most part it hangs around making everyone else look good - sweet rolls, cookies, stews, meats, vegetables.  It is found in virtually every cuisine around the world and is one of the "five" in the five spice powder used in Asian cooking I have come to love so much.

Do you have Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, arthritis, poor memory, or are low in iron or calcium?  Studies are showing that cinnamon can help with all of these and more.  It may regulate blood sugar and it was shown in one study to reduce the growth rate of leukemia and lymphoma cancer cells.  It also acts as an anticoagulant.  Just breathing in it's pleasant aroma has been found to boost memory!  If you'd like to read more about these health benefits you can go to this website or this website.

So, with this healthy outlook in mind, and owing to our desire to be the best we can be -
 let's get baking!

Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Frosting and Spiced Cream Cheese Filling
Pumpkin Spice Cake:
1/2 c. unsalted butter, softened (113.5 g)
1 1/2 c. light brown sugar, packed (330 g)
2 c. cake flour (274 g) Pillsbury makes one called Softasilk
1 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg
1/2 t. kosher salt
1/4 t. ground cloves
2 eggs
1 c. canned solid pack pumpkin (245 g)
1/2 c. buttermilk
1 t. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cream the butter and brown sugar until fluffy - about 5 minutes.

While the butter and sugar are creaming:

In a separate large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, and cloves.  Whisk well.  Set aside.

In another bowl, combine the buttermilk, pumpkin puree, and vanilla.  Set aside.

When the butter and sugar are fluffy, add the eggs, one at a time, incorporating each one before adding the next.  Scrape the bowl and beater down then begin adding the dry and wet ingredients, adding the dry in three parts and the wet in two in this manner:

Add half of the dry ingredients and fold only until it starts to come together.  You will still see large streaks of dry ingredients.

Add half of the wet ingredients and fold only until it starts to combine.  Again, you will still see streaks of wet.

Add half of the remaining dry ingredients and fold but not fully incorporating.

Add the rest of the wet in same manner and then add the remaining dry in same manner.

Using a large spatula, gently scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and fold.  You will still see streaks but as you continue to gently handle the batter in filling the cups, it will blend more.  I like to use a pastry bag to fill my cupcake liners so, by the time I get the batter scraped into the bag, it's mixed perfectly.  You do not want to over handle cake batter!  It needs the air to make for that lovely crumb and you don't want to wake up that gluten and get it fighting you!

Fill cups half full.  Warning!  Here is what happens when you overfill the cups - notice the bad boy in the front!

Notice the good boys in the back?  Aren't they so cute?!

Bake for 18 minutes total, turning halfway through baking.  Let cool.

Vanilla Bean Buttercream frosting:
3 1/2 c. powdered sugar (410 g)
1 c. unsalted butter, softened (227 g)
1/2 vanilla bean
2 T. heavy cream

In a large mixer bowl, cream the sugar and butter, starting on low speed until blended and then increasing speed to medium.  Beat until well incorporated and airy and creamy.

Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise with the tip of a small sharp knife and lay it open on a flat surface.  

Using the edge of the knife, scrape the beans from the inside and place in the bowl.  

Continue to mix well.  

Add the cream, adding more if you want a looser consistency.  Place frosting in a pastry bag to pipe on cupcakes AFTER they are filled.

Spiced Cream Cheese filling:

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 T. butter, softened
1/2 c. powdered sugar (60 g)
1 t. pumpkin pie spice

Cream together the cream cheese and butter.  Add the powdered sugar and pumpkin pie spice until well blended and mixture is smooth and creamy.  Place in a pastry bag fitted with a small star tip.  When cupcakes are cool, insert the tip of the filled bag into the top of the cupcake and pipe in some filling.  You will see the top of the cupcake rise a little as the filling goes in.  Stop when the filling starts to come back up and out.  You'll get the hang of just how much the cupcake can hold after doing a couple.  Don't worry about the small hole because the frosting will cover it up.

Pipe on the frosting in whatever fashion makes you happy, being sure to cover your secret filling entrance!

To serve:  I use a microplane and a stick of cinnamon and zest the stick over top of the filled and frosted cupcakes to decorate.  The aroma from doing this will surely help you remember all that you are blessed with this holiday season!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Frankly, My Dear . . . "

Song Pairing:
Have A Cigar by Pink Floyd
Sometimes these song choices pick me.  They sneak up behind me and patiently tap me on the shoulder until I turn and say, "What!"  That's how this one made it here today.  In my entire preparation for this post on Pecan Pie I couldn't shake an unmistakable masculine presence.  Pecan Pie is masculine?  I'd never thought of pies in a gender-biased way before.  Most desserts would probably be considered feminine - all frilly and fluff.  But Pecan Pie - well, now, that's a different story.  I picture a room full of men in a study, patches on their elbows, smoking their pipes and cigars - and they won't be eating apple or cherry pie.  They'll be eating Pecan Pie - with a shot of bourbon in it - and maybe some chocolate - just like this one. . .  

If I had been given the chance to direct a scene in "Gone With the Wind" (this is a realistic post today, folks) I would stage Rhett's intro to the film in this manner:

Ashley Wilkes and his neighborhood gentlemen would be in the library at Twelve Oaks, talking politics.  The doors to the library are open to encourage a breeze throughout the room.  Suddenly, you hear that funk and groove riff intro of Have A Cigar and you know something memorable is about to happen.  The men sense an approach and stop talking and turn to face the door.  And just when the drums and keyboard kick in, Rhett Butler appears through the doorway from the shadows, cigar in his right hand, and a plate with a piece of my pecan pie on the other, fork tucked into his vest pocket.  He makes a draw from his cigar, exhales, smoke circling his quizzical brow and says:

Rhett: "Hello, gentlemen.  Which one of you is Pink?"

No! No! No!  I'm only kidding on that last part!  I couldn't resist!  Had Rhett Butler been around when Pink Floyd was, he most definitely would NOT have made the same mistake as the moron talked about in the song.  He would more likely have made mention as to what a delicious pie he was enjoying!  Ahem . . .

We get many lovely things from the South - Margaret Mitchell and her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "Gone With the Wind," Harry Connick, Jr., and gumbo, to name a few.  But today I want to feature the lovely pecan.  Our southern states provide about 90% of the world's supply of pecans!  Whether you say it "pe-cahn" or "pe-can," you have to love this nut's versatility.  A super healthy nut, it can be served both savory and sweet - and, right up there with almonds - it's one of the nuts I use most in my kitchen.

Have A Cigar talks about the people who surround you when you become famous, pretending to know you and be your biggest fan and friend, while, in reality, they're just interested in "riding the gravy train." You may think you know what my pecan pie is all about but there's a good chance you don't!  

In the dark corn syrup vs. light corn syrup options, I've taken the dark side (teehee, Floyd fans will get it.)  This recipe calls for quite a bit less sugar than most, which I'm going to pretend makes it super healthy!  I've seen some pecan pie recipes call for sprinkling chocolate bits on the bottom with the pecans but I've decided to paint the inside of my pie shell with a chocolate ganache.  This way, you'll get a perfect balance of chocolate and pecan with every bite.  And the bourbon?  Just happened to have some left over from another recipe.  I wasn't sure if Southern Comfort goes bad, but I threw in a tiny bit to tweak the flavors and to use it up.  To top it all off, I whipped up some heavy cream with a little sugar and a pinch of ground cloves.  And, that, people, makes for a chart buster!  

Would you indulge me a moment to send a shout-out "Happy Birthday" to Chef Jay, one of my instructors from culinary school.  He loves both Pink Floyd AND pecan pie - and he's one of the nicest guys I know!

Pecan Pie with Chocolate and Bourbon
Printable Recipe Card
Single Crust Pie Dough:
1 1/2 c. flour
1 t. sugar
1/2 t. salt
1/2 c. cold shortening or butter or a mix of both
4 - 5 T. very cold water

Place the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor bowl and pulse a few times to mix.  Add the cold shortening in bits the size of a tablespoon.  Pulse a few times until it resembles large marbles.  Add half of the cold water and pulse a few times.  Slowly add enough of the rest of the water, pulsing, until the dough just leaves the side of the bowl.  Turn out onto plastic wrap, wrap securely, and chill for at least half an hour.

Make the pecan filling:
2 T. flour
1 T. sugar
10 oz. dark corn syrup
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla
1/2 t. salt
2 T. unsalted butter, melted
1 T. bourbon
1 1/2 c. pecan halves

Stir the flour and sugar together until well combined.  Add the dark corn syrup and stir well.  Add the eggs, vanilla, salt, melted butter, and bourbon and stir until well combined.

Chocolate Ganache:
1 c. chocolate chips
1/4 c. half and half or cream (I used fat free half and half and it worked fine)

Place chocolate chips in a bowl.  Heat the half and half or cream in a microwaveable cup for about 20 seconds or until very hot.  Pour over chocolate chips and let sit for a couple minutes.  Stir until chocolate melts.  If necessary, put in the microwave again for another 10 - 15 seconds.  Stir.  Take care not to burn the chocolate.

Assembly -

Roll the pie dough to a circle on a well-floured surface until it is about two inches larger than the pie plate.  Carefully fold in half and gently lift and place in a pie plate and unfold.  Adjust it so it is evenly centered.  Trim the dough using kitchen shears, leaving one inch of overhang.  Fold and tuck under the overhang all around the pie plate.  Pinch the crust or use a fork to build a crust edge.

Using a pastry brush, brush the insides of the pie shell with the chocolate mixture.

Be sure to get up the sides

Go ahead and give it a nice thick coat (but save a little for garnishing) then pop it into the freezer for a few minutes to help it set up.

Add 1 1/2 c. pecan halves

Stir the corn syrup mixture again and pour over the top of the pecans.

Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake for an additional 25 - 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool, drizzle with any leftover chocolate, and serve with whipped cream.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Chowder Days

Song Pairing:
(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding
When I think of clam chowder I picture myself walking down a pier, hands buried deep in my peacoat pockets, fog rolling in, and seagulls squawking overhead.  Oh - and some guy sitting on the edge, legs dangling over the side, whistling and singing this song.  And I'm not kidding.  I really do.  It's like I somehow spliced myself into an Otis Redding music video.  I like it that this is my musical reaction to this delicious dish.  Oh - and it also makes me think of building homes. 

When we were first married my husband worked construction, building homes, while he was going to school.  It was hard work - hot in the summer and bitter cold in the winter.  If you planned it right, you'd have your houses framed by the end of autumn so you could work on the insides during the winter.

It was during this end-of-fall season when my husband was working up on the roof of one of the houses.  He was nailing away and heard a clink of something falling down and off the roof.  He did a quick look, didn't see anything, so just supposed that one of the nails had fallen out of his nail apron.  He finished up his work and headed home.  While he was cleaning up for dinner he noticed that his wedding band was gone.  Uh-oh!  Guess it hadn't been a nail after all! 

He searched and searched for that ring over the next few weeks and never found it.  Winter came and it was a pretty harsh one with lots of snow and wind.  The ring was a lost cause.

The following spring, after most of the snow had melted off, he was at that same house doing a final clean-up on the outside as the house was about finished.  He was walking by a mud puddle and, out of the corner of his eye, noticed something shiny in the puddle.  He stopped, bent down, and leaned in for a closer inspection.  He reached in and pulled out the object and found that he was holding his wedding band!  He couldn't believe it and neither could I!  What are the odds of finding something as small as a ring after a winter like that?  Whatever they are, he sure beat them!

My favorite date nights that first year of marriage were when he'd take me to walk through a home when it was almost finished.  They were beautiful homes with lots of special details.  We'd dream about the day when maybe we'd be able to build a home like one of these.  "If only," I'd think.

My husband enjoyed building homes and working with his hands.  He also enjoyed working with some great guys.  Once in awhile we'd get together with their families on the weekend.  One night one of the guys and his wife had us over to their home for dinner.  I can't remember their names or much else about that night but I do remember what she served.  It was a delicious clam chowder.  Delicious!  Being a newlywed I was anxious to get my hands on good and easy recipes so I could make decent meals for my husband - something with which I had been struggling up to that point.  (We won't talk about the very first meal I prepared.)  But as the wife of the co-worker told me how to make this chowder I was thinking that I might have found a recipe I could successfully repeat.  Yay!  She wrote the recipe down for me and I embarked on years (over 33 of them now) of successful clam chowder meals.

Our food budget was miniscule so we didn't have it too often at first, but when cans of clams went on sale it was a happy day for my husband!  I served it with homemade bread, cornbread, or my fresh biscuits.  A wonderful meal, indeed!

I've made this recipe with variations on the milk ingredient over the years.  It was always guided by what I happened to have on hand.  We had some pretty lean years when we were starting out.  I didn't always have whole milk on hand or couldn't afford to use so much of it on one dish.  I have used skim milk to cut calories and it tasted great but wasn't nearly as thick.  I have used half & half and it produced a slightly sweet flavor.  I have even used a combination of regular milk and evaporated milk to equal the amount required.  Surprisingly, this was delicious!  I started adding the carrots in just the last few years purely for color - but the taste is great, too.

Clam Chowder
Printable Recipe Card
2 t. butter
1 c. chopped celery
1 c. chopped onion
1 c. chopped carrots
2 c. chopped potatoes
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cans clams, either chopped or whole, reserve the juice
3/4 c. butter
3/4 c. flour
1 qt. whole milk
salt and pepper to taste
2 t. vinegar

Melt 2 t. butter in a sauce pan and lightly saute the celery, onion, and carrots for a few minutes, just until the onions are translucent.  Add the sprigs of thyme and stir and heat a minute to bloom the herbs.  Add the potatoes and the reserved liquid off of the cans of clams.  Add enough water or seafood stock to cover the vegetables, bring to a  boil, and then simmer until veggies are barely fork tender.

In another pan, melt the 3/4 c. butter and whisk in the flour.  You are making a roux (pronounced ROO) - a thickener for the chowder. You want to cook this just until you start getting a slightly nutty aroma.  What you are doing is cooking out the raw flour flavor.  If you've ever had a gravy that you couldn't quite figure out what it was you didn't like, it was most likely because you were getting a raw flour taste - not desirable. You shouldn't get any color to this roux, though.  A roux works like this:  the less you cook it, the blonder (lighter) it is, the more thickening power it has.  The longer you cook it, the darker it gets, the less thickening power it has.  But you do have to cook it - and, in this case, just enough to get out the raw flavor.  If it's browning too fast on you, lower your heat.

Once your butter and flour are ready, whisk in the milk and heat and stir until you have a very thick consistency.

Once the veggies are ready  in one pan and the roux is ready in the other, combine the two pans - I suggest stirring the roux into the veggie mix.  Add the clams and heat and stir until the chowder is well blended.  The liquid from the veggies will loosen up the roux and you should be left with a velvety "broth."  If you want it thicker, raise the heat a little and cook a little longer, stirring frequently as it likes to scorch. 

Season to taste with the salt and pepper.  Stir in the vinegar.  Taste the chowder before and after the addition of the vinegar.  You will be surprised at how it elevates the flavors.  Do not be tempted to add the vinegar earlier. Acids can interfere with the thickening process.  Remove the thyme stems and serve.  Garnish with some fresh thyme, if desired.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Friends Help Friends Eat Meatloaf

I'll Be There For You by The Rembrandts
No matter how many friends a person has, there's always just a few who stand apart from the rest.  These are the friends who seem to outlast distance and time.  You don't have to be near to be dear.  I've been blessed with just such friends.  Today's post is about one friend in particular who heard past my declarations of self-sufficiency (aka stubborness) and rendered service at a much needed moment.  "I'll be there for you, 'cause you're there for me, too!"

I'm not the most graceful person.  One could argue that it doesn't stand to reason that I would be such a klutz, being that my center of gravity is so low to the ground and all.  This is a roundabout way of saying I am short - with short legs.  Nevertheless, my body always seems to be on a constant ground-seeking quest!  I trip and stumble.  I fall from ladders.  I slip on - well, anything really - ice, gravel, wet surfaces, dust.  No matter if everyone else seems to be traversing just fine, I find a way to introduce an element of danger into any passage. 

I recall an incident when I was in high school.  Our school stood way on top of a hill and, on this particular occasion, I slipped three times in a row coming down that hill - in the winter - legs flying out from under me, coat flying clear up over my head, taking my dress with it.  Three times in a row - and it's high school.  Just wanted to make sure you felt the full impact of the embarassment level here.

Slowly, I have come to accept this graceless side of myself.  The full test of this acceptance being several years ago when I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament, if you must know) while playing a dance game on our game system.  You were supposed to stand on this pad and match the steps on the TV screen.  I had it on exercise mode and had already completed the routine twice successfully.  It was that third time - you know, the one that's supposed to be a "charm" - that produced the snap, crackle, and pop that was to be known as my version of a "sports" injury. 

How do I explain to people that I tore my ACL while playing a game??  How lame!!!!  This is what they carry men off the field for in football games - where one would expect such injuries with everyone pushing and shoving and knocking each other over.  Not in your basement while . . . dancing!

I thought about creating a daring tale of how I was snow boarding or skiing moguls.  I tested the story in my head a few times.  Yeah - I didn't know enough about skiing of any kind to pull it off.  I would just look even more lame.  The more I thought about it, the more I knew I'd just have to finally come to grips with my clumsiness.  Own it!  Embrace it!

I messed around with my injury for a couple years until I finally decided to get it repaired.  The surgery was going to keep me "side-lined" for awhile.  My oldest daughter came home to help me out.  I thought she and my husband were being overly cautious because, despite my tendency toward accidents, I am a pretty tough cookie.  I was certain I could take care of everything myself.  But I did end up needing some help the first few days.  I hadn't broadcast my impending surgery so very few people knew about it.  One very dear friend did, though, and despite my protests that we didn't need any help, Dee showed up at my home with a beautiful meal.

I had just announced to my family that I wasn't hungry.  But my friend came walking past where I lay on the sofa with a meatloaf that smelled so so so good!  I didn't recognize it as a meatloaf at first because it wasn't shaped like the meatloaves I'd known in the past.  It wasn't a brick.  It was in a casserole dish!  So now, all of a sudden, I'm hungry AND curious!  She left and a feeding frenzy ensued.  The meatloaf was perfectly moist without being mushy.  It was firm but not dry.  The flavor was entirely lovely.  This meatloaf marched right on up to being one of the family favorites.   

I know that many people have hang-ups about this old-fashioned classic.  It gets a bad rap.  But I've always liked it.  After Dee's meal, though, I LOVE it!!  Seriously.  Try this recipe and give meatloaf a chance!  It's great for a meal and the leftovers make wonderful sandwiches!

Friends serve friends meatloaf.  It's true.

Printable Recipe Card
1 1/2 - 2 lbs ground meat
1 egg
1/4 c. chopped onion
3/4 c. oatmeal
3/4 c. milk
2 t. dried basil
1/2 t. marjoram
salt and pepper
1/3 c. ketchup
2 T. brown sugar
1 T. mustard
2 T. molasses

It's pretty straightforward.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the first nine ingredients - ground meat through salt and pepper - in a large bowl.  Mix until it is very well combined.  Traditionally, ground beef is used, however, you can use ground turkey, pork, lamb - or a mixture of two or more of them.  If you do use lamb, try adding a little ground cinnamon to the mixture to counter the flavor of the lanolin.

Spread the mixture evenly  into a 9x13 pan using a wooden spoon.  Using the end of the handle of the wooden spoon, poke holes into the top of the meatloaf spaced a couple of inches apart like this:

Next, mix together the topping ingredients in a small bowl.  Pour over the top of the meatloaf and then spread out, making sure the sauce goes over and down the holes.

If you prefer, you can use a favorite BBQ sauce instead!

Bake, uncovered, for 1 hour 15 minutes.  Let sit for about five minutes before you try to slice it.  I like to make one cut, lengthwise, down the middle, and then make cuts crosswise, about one inch wide.  This is a nice size for when you use the leftovers on a hoagie bun for sandwiches!  Remove slices from the pan and serve from a platter.  So nice! 

Monday, November 7, 2011

"With Arms Wide Open"

Song Pairing:
With Arms Wide Open by Creed
My oldest son turned 31 yesterday.  He is the one who introduced me to the band, Creed, and Scott Stapp's powerful vocals.  I can't listen to their music without thinking of my son.  And since this post is going to be about this son and his beloved Peanut Butter Bars, it makes it about the most perfect song choice ever!  It's a beautiful ballad about becoming a parent and echoes my joy upon learning I was to be a mother for the first time - to this amazing son.  Read on . . . 

We are a family of music lovers - always sharing our new finds with each other.  It makes for an eclectic iTunes library as our tastes are quite varied.  I remember when my oldest son was listening to Creed when he was in high school.  I liked it but many of their songs sounded so raw and angry.  When I shared these thoughts with my son he defended their sound saying that they were a Christian Rock band.  I hadn't heard about this genre yet and wondered, out loud, if having Christ in their life is what made them so upset and what kind of message that sent to their listeners.  My son didn't roll his eyes but I'm pretty sure he wanted to.

I was teasing him, you know.  I'm not a "music prude" at all.  I grew up in a musical family and my parents were NOT the type to tell us to turn our stereos down.  My mom would boogie to whatever we were playing as she did the ironing.  The notion that music could annoy parents came strictly from watching television shows and listening to the kids at school.  My first music censoring experience came in the 6th grade as my teacher forbade us to play American Pie by Don McLean in the classroom.  I was aware that music could evoke strong emotions from people - I just didn't experience that sort of opposition at home.

I loved discussing music with my son - even if those discussions were provoked by putting him on the defensive.  I was just curious to hear what he would say - and I was always astounded at the depth of his knowledge about bands in particular and music in general.  I was proud.

When he left to be a missionary in Europe for two years I missed him terribly.  To help me feel close to him, I pulled out his Creed CDs and started listening to them.  I listened to the words.  There wasn't really anything objectionable.  The beat was driving, the vocals were compelling, and I found myself actually loving the music for my own enjoyment.  In fact, it started becoming the music to which I listened when I would do big projects such as painting or cleaning out the garage (the acoustics in the garage were AWESOME!)  I was a Creed fan - or probably more accurately - I was a Scott Stapp fan.  Man, that guy can sing!

Another thing I did to remember my son while he was gone was make these Peanut Butter Bars.  At the time, they were a fairly new addition to my recipe box.  I got the recipe from my friend whose mother made these goodies for a get-together.  They reminded me of my beloved Peanut Butter Goodies from school lunch growing up - only with chocolate!  I usually didn't make bar cookies and I don't know why since they are such a time saver.  Every single person in the family loved these, but my son loved them the most.  Afraid that they were going to be difficult, I was thrilled to get the recipe and learn how easily and quickly they worked up.  Needless to say, I always made sure I had a tub of chocolate frosting and both types of peanut butter in the pantry.

Yes - I said pre-made, store-bought, chocolate frosting.  Culinary guilt steps in.

When I was in culinary school I felt it was a sign of weakness of my skills as a chef if I were to use such a convenience item when I was capable of making a beautiful chocolate frosting from scratch.  So I made these bars and used my homemade frosting. I was really expecting an outcome of baking brilliance.  A total transformation of an already wondrous product.  I was stupefied when, upon tasting them, they were very much the same delightful treat as with the canned frosting. There was no elevation of quality - they were just as delicious as before.  How could this be true?  It didn't make sense.  Wasn't homemade always better than store-bought?  Shortly after this puzzling experiment, we had a class on just this topic.  The chef brought up the role of ready-made products and their place in the professional kitchen.  My guilt was taken away as we learned that, at times, pre-made products were perfectly acceptable, and it didn't make you less of a chef for using them.  Suddenly it was silly NOT to use pre-made frosting since it was a time saver as well as a money saver!  Whew!

Here's the recipe with a couple of my own tweaks.
Happy Birthday, son!

Peanut Butter Bars
Printable Recipe Card
3/4 c. butter, softened
3/4 c. white sugar
1 3/4 c. brown sugar
3/4 c. chunky peanut butter
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla
2 c. flour
3/4 t. baking soda
dash salt
2 c. oats
small jar creamy peanut butter
1 container chocolate frosting

Preheat to 350.

Cream together the sugars and the butter until light and fluffy.  Add the chunky peanut butter and mix until blended.  Add the eggs, one at a time, making sure they are well-incorporated after each one.  In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.  Add, all at once, to the wet ingredients and mix just until it starts to come together.  At this point, add the oats and mix until the dough just comes together. Lightly spray a cookie sheet and spread the dough out evenly.

Bake 9 minutes.  Turn.  Bake another 9 minutes.  Do not be tempted to bake these any longer.  They will appear doughy and you're going to want to - but don't!  It almost looks like the surface of the moon!

Let them cool.  Spread the creamy peanut butter over the top.  Spread the chocolate frosting over top of that.  It really helps if you use an off-set spatula.

You might want to chill them a bit before cutting.  Cut them small because they are rich!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Silky Smooth Homemade Yogurt

Song Pairing:
El Farol by Santana
I've argued this song choice in my head for days now.  I've waited and waited for another song to hit me like lightning and say, "NO!  I'm the song for making yogurt!"  Yet it hasn't happened.  All I know is, when I play this song, it makes me feel just how I feel when I'm practicing the art of yogurt-making. 

Is it because there are no lyrics?  Because, truly, there are no words for how smart, confident, and sexy I feel when I'm making up a new batch.  The song is smooth and fluid - and if whole milk being poured into a glass in slow motion had the ability to create its own tune - El Farol would be it.  The word - el farol -is spanish for light, as in a streetlight or hurricane lamp.  It can also be translated to mean bluff - as in  the playing poker kind of bluff.  All I can say is - I'm not bluffing when I say that making yogurt has brought light to my soul.  It's OK if you cringed - I kinda did.  Save judgment, though, until you try it yourself.

This song won a 2000 Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental.  I remember being electrified by the whole album that carried this song, as were over 27 million other people.  If you don't already own the album, Supernatural, you probably should.  I'm just sayin'.

Everyone should have a friend like my friend, Ciel.  She knows how to do and make just about everything.  She's a curious soul, like myself.  If she doesn't know how to do something she is going to be researching it until she does - or finds someone who can teach her.  I love to be around other "knowledge junkies."  I inherited the addiction from my father.  I don't know where she got hers, but I'm glad she has it, too!

Ciel is the one who brought me to the land of yogurt, saying the words, "It's really not that hard."  Ok - I'm not sure that those were her exact words, but something to that effect.  What she did was give me a taste of hers.  True confessions - I was prepared for something too sour and of questionable texture.  I'd tasted other people's homemade yogurt before, mind you, and they all professed theirs to be so yummy.  Liars! 

Well, Ciel was no liar!  Hers was truly, certifiably, silky and delicious.  It wasn't all high notes of tartness.  There were lovely undertones of that "healthy" flavor of perfect cultures balancing out the slightest hint of any sour.  I'm not even sure that sour is the right word here.  I just know that I wanted more!  The questions started to fly!

She explained about how she liked to use a yogurt with several different types of bacteria culture as her starter and greek yogurts usually had the most.  She also told me she uses whole milk.  She said I could try low-fat but that the texture probably wouldn't be as velvety.  (She was right.)  She offered to have me over the next time she made a batch so I could see just how easy it was.

A couple weeks later I got a text saying that it was a yogurt-making morning!  I rearranged my schedule and went on over.  I watched her stir milk as she heated it - it was . . . . fascinating?  And then she did the incredible feat of stirring in a half can of sweetened condensed milk.  When it came to a simmer she stirred for just a bit longer and then . . . . she TURNED OFF THE HEAT!!!  Whoa!  I was amazed!  As we chatted, it cooled down and then she stirred in a couple heaping tablespoons of yogurt!  (She always saves that much from the previous batch so she can start the next one.)  When she announced that that was it, I was a litte let down.  Surely there had to be more to it!  She put the yogurt into her jars, capped them, wrapped them in a towel, and showed me her fancy, schmancy, incubator - a space above the freezer in her pantry.  She said it was the warmest spot in her house and that I should spend a little time finding that perfect spot in my home.  Not too hot, not too cold.

So what next?  She lets it sit for 24 hours.  The next morning she has a fresh batch to enjoy!

I went right out and bought my "supplies."

I couldn't wait until the next morning, not that you can only make yogurt in the mornings.  That's just when I would have the time to dedicate to my new adventure.  Of course, I tried to make some changes and my first couple batches were fails, in my opinion.  The low-fat version was a disappointment because I really wanted that same smooth texture of Ciel's.  I finally gave in and went the full fat, full sugar way, like Ciel, and I haven't been sorry.  I can have less when the quality is so good!

printable recipe

2 qts. whole milk
1/2 can sweetened condensed milk
2 oz. yogurt - one with live cultures

Pour milk into a large pan and turn heat to medium, stirring occasionally.  Stay close as milk likes to suddenly bubble up and out of whatever container is trying to heat it!

When steam starts to rise from the milk, whisk in the sweetened condensed milk, giving it a good stir until it's fully incorporated.  You don't want bits to sink to the bottom and start burning.

Continue to heat until the milk simmers, around 185 degrees.  I do use a thermometer to be certain of my temps.  This is the one I use.  Stir another minute then turn off the heat and let cool.  You will want the liquid to be no higher than 110 degrees so you don't kill the active bacteria cultures.  It should be warmer than 70 degrees, though.  To save time, you can fill a clean sink with ice water and put your pan in, making sure the water doesn't come over the sides of the pan.  Stir and watch as the temperature plummets to within your range.

When the milk mixture is between 110 - 70 degrees, whisk in the yogurt.

Pour into jars that have secure lids.  I like to use smaller jars but Ciel uses a large one.

Wrap in a towel . . .

and place in a warm spot.  In the spring and summer, my garage acts as the perfect spot.  Sometimes, my daugher's windowseat gets the job.

In the winter, I turn on the electric blanket in the guest room and slip it into the covers.
Keep warm 24 hours then refrigerate and enjoy!  I love mine with bananas and Ginger Preserves!