Saturday, December 31, 2011

A New Year, A New Look



What A Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong
There's no recipe today but an announcement of something I'm really excited about!  I did want to share a song, though, that goes with how I'm feeing about life right now.  I fight back the negativity being heaped upon us daily by surrounding myself with super positive influences - people, music, books, and mindsets.  I slip now and then, but, for the most part I'd call myself a positive person.  Take the photo above, for instance.  I get honest happiness from a bowl of cut-up fruit.  The colors excite me, the flavors dazzle my tastebuds, and, without fail, others are happy to enjoy it as well.  I love the happy yet incredibly simple resolve of this song.  It's not the lavish or flamboyant material things in which we find joy.  Just open your eyes, look around, and seek it out.  It's there.  May you seek the joy this new year!

This post is to let you in on a project I've been working on for the past couple months.

I was so excited to get this blog up and running that I put together it's "look" on my own, drawing on my limited knowledge as a photographer and web designer - which is zero.  I knew from the start that I'd be wanting a "facelift" sooner or later.

Luckily, I crossed paths with a wonderful young lady "sooner" than I thought I would who had all the skills I lacked in those departments.  Elizabeth and I have been putting our heads together and she's come up with a blog design that I'm super excited to share with all of you!  It will be making it's debut here soon so don't be shocked when you come on over and things look different!  Both of our families have been under the weather so be patient!

I have a few ideas that I want to incorporate into the blog along with the new look - such as printable recipe cards.  Again - Elizabeth has done such a wonderful job figuring out exactly what I wanted!  Isn't it exciting when someone succeeds in making sense of your gibberish - and then turning that gibberish into something wonderful?

So - for now - here's a sneak peak at what the new header will look like:


If you're needing someone with photography and design skills, contact Elizabeth!  She's been such a treat to work with!

Contact info:
lizzygraff@gmail.com

or through her photography website:

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Cinnamon Throwdown



Cinnamon by Art Pepper
I often listen to jazz while I cook.  I love it's free-spirited nature.  There's lots of room for personal style and interpretation which I hope translates itself into my cooking.  Today's "recipe" is rather loose and there's room for your own personal interpretation.  Let the mood take you where it will!  The makers of the recipe certainly did!  In the end, they came up with a winner!  And it's all about the cinnamon!  And, of course, the chocolate doesn't hurt either!

Every couple years our family gathers together for a week-long reunion.  We usually choose a place with a warm climate, find a home large enough to accommodate our growing numbers, and plan and anticipate.  We golf, shop, play games, watch movies, visit, and, one night we have our Iron Chef competition!

This is how our cook-off works.  We pick a not-so-secret ingredient before we come.  We work in pairs.  The challenge is that we don't know which course of the Iron Chef meal we will be preparing before we arrive.  So we have to come prepared to make either an appetizer, an entree, a side dish, or a dessert.  All courses must have the not-so-secret ingredient.  The winner is decided by a family vote on secret ballots.  The decision is always difficult, but we've always had a clear winner - no ties!  We do have a "trophy" - if you can call it that.  A large wooden spoon with a tres chic plastic label.  It has each year's recipients boldly proclaimed in black permanent marker and hangs in our kitchen for all to see.  I've decided we need something a little more grand.  I'll be checking into that in the next few weeks.

This week we have gathered in Carefree, Arizona for our big reunion and the Iron Chef competition was last night!  Our not-so-secret ingredient was cinnamon.  The four teams drew their course assignments the first night we arrived and everything was ready to serve by about 6 o'clock.  Here's a photo journal of how the night went -

My daughter and I drew the appetizer course.  We decided on a fruit salsa with homemade cinnamon sugar chips.




We chopped up a bunch of colorful fruit - apples, kiwi, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and orange supremes.


We added a little drizzle of an apple cider reduction over the fruit when we plated!  Tasty!


My son and his wife drew the side dish and went with a family holiday favorite - always welcome at the table!  Southern Comfort Sweet Potatoes!



Golden, bubbly, solid comfort here, people!  Sooo good!


My daughter and her husband were in charge of the main dish.  They came up with an amazing pizza with a Moroccan feel to it.  It had cinnamon and spice sautéed chicken, red onions, and mozzarella cheese slices on top!



Just look at these babies coming out of the oven!  Felt my knees go a little weak here!


The final team, the one with my youngest son and youngest daughter, the defending champs, were pretty much seen to be lazing around and not doing much at all.  Reading, playing on their iPad, or heckling other teams as they worked hard on their dishes.  "Were we even going to get dessert tonight?" we wondered.  But, then, they started doing stuff like this:


Chocolate, butter, and a little whole milk in a double boiler?  Hmm - sounds like a chocolate ganache.  And then they brought a sheet of these little nuggets up from the oven in the basement kitchen! 


 I'm starting to take notice - as is everyone else!  What are those?  Fig Newtons?  They just laughed at us - in a "bwa-ha-ha-ha!" manner.
As my daughter is making the chocolate sauce on the stove, my son starts scooping up vanilla ice cream and rinsing berries and mint leaves.


I hear them actually discuss a plating strategy!  When I saw this ribbon of chocolate cascading over the ice cream and cinnamon bars, I knew there was gonna be trouble!


In a few short moments we were presented with this!


And this beautiful dessert was voted the winner at this year's Iron Chef competition!

When asked for the lowdown on how to make it, this is the best I could get - apparently they did a lot of "winging it!"

Cinnamon Bars
printable recipe
Stick of butter, softened
Sugar and cinnamon

Mix the butter, sugar, and cinnamon together well and microwave for a few seconds to melt just a little.  Roll out the pie dough into a sort of rectangle until about 1/4 inch thick.  Spread the cinnamon, sugar, and butter mixture over the top leaving a half inch edge clean.  Cut into 1 1/2 - 2 inch strips lengthwise then cut them in half crosswise.  Fold these strips up so they look similar to a Fig Newton, then cut them in half.  (See picture above)  Place on sheet tray and bake at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, until dough is done and flaky.  Cool.

Make ganache and, while still warm, drizzle over the top of the bars and ice cream. 

Garnish with berries and a mint floret.

Truly delicious!

Monday, December 26, 2011

We May Never Pass This Way Again



We May Never Pass This Way Again by Seals & Crofts
Family times should never be taken for granted - each one cherished and treasured.  If I could peel the reels of my memory "film" from my brain and apply a soundtrack for the holiday shrimp bashes at my grandparents' home, this song would be it.  Losses can come swiftly, unannounced.  Feelings get hurt and create chasms where once was unity.  Jobs or marriages take loved ones to far away places.  Whenever you're together, savor it, for "we may never pass this way again."

My grandmother's house smelled of Old Bay seasoning all year round - which was fine by me.  It made every visit feel like the ultimate visit during the holidays.  I'm not sure if she actually used Old Bay all year.  She probably just used the herbs and spices used in the Old Bay mix frequently.  Nonetheless, Old Bay seasoning and my grandparents' home are synonymous in my memory bank.


What made the holiday visit to my grandparents' home the ultimate visit is that it involved a mountain of shrimp.  No - I'm serious!  A literal mountain of shrimp!  (Or what seems to be a literal mountain of shrimp when you're a little kid!)  We'd enter through the back kitchen door into a huge steam cloud filled with the scents of celery seed, bay leaves, and cloves.  Greetings would be called out, joking and teasing would begin, and laughter would come from every corner of their home as cousins, aunts, and uncles convened.  All would be making their way to belly up to the dining room table for the commencement of the shrimp blitz.


The dining room table is draped with a huge plastic sheet or vinyl tablecloth.  There is newspaper strewn about the table top.  There's not enough room for everyone to sit at once so we'd take turns.  As each kettle of steamed shrimp was ready, Grandma would heft it through the kitchen and into the dining room and deftly tip that kettle over.  The shrimp would spill out and form that mountain of shrimp.  Those with asbestos hands would be the first to reach in and start.  Most of us would take one and toss it hand to hand, back and forth, while trying to peel off the shell.  I couldn't wait to get that first bite of shrimp.  Nothing - absolutely nothing - tasted as good to me as my grandma's Old Bay shrimp.  It was, and is, my favorite food EVER.


I don't remember anyone not liking shrimp.  It never occurred to me that someone would not like it.  As I did eventually encounter these odd people in my life, I found it interesting that my response would be one of, well, happiness!  For, if they didn't like shrimp, it meant fewer people with which to share, and MORE FOR ME!  I would say that, by the time I was about five years old, I could peel that shrimp about as fast as any adult.  I was good at removing anything that stood between me and that beautiful pinky orange sea flesh!


This tradition was one that I couldn't wait to start when I had a family of my own.  Big problem, though.  I didn't have the connections my grandma had.  I moved to the other side of the country, away from my uncle who supplied the bounty of those feasts.  And, being newly married and in school, we didn't have the funds to purchase seafood of any kind.  But, when we were out of school, you can be sure we started it and have done it every year since.  Come by my house on Christmas day and I'm pulling steamed shrimp out of the kettle throughout the day, the scent of Old Bay seasoning permeating my own home, welcoming friends and family who stop by to join us in the feasting frenzy.


Although it's a Christmas tradition for us, it would also make a wonderful addition to your New Year's Eve table!  And it's healthy - so it's guilt-free!  Be good to yourself!


Here's how, it's easy!

Gather together these ingredients:


Per pound of shrimp you'll need 1/2 c. vinegar, 1/2 c. water, and Old Bay seasoning.  I like to add lemon slices since my brother, Ed, showed me this a few years ago.  Follow the instructions on the side of the can of Old Bay (usually found by the meat counter in most grocery stores.)


Bring the liquids and the Old Bay to a boil and then add the shrimp.  They start out greenish then turn this beautiful pinky orange when they're done.


As soon as they are pink and have lost any translucency, they are done!  They do tend to cook a little longer after removed, so you'll want to factor this in as well.  Take care to watch them closely.  If you overcook them they are dry and rubbery - ew!  Pull them out of the hot liquid and spread them out on a sheet tray to cool quickly.  At this point I sprinkle on some more Old Bay and scatter lemon slices over.  Then, into the fridge they go to cool down and chill - or you can eat them hot if you like!



If you like some cocktail sauce, it's easy as well!  I simply mix together 2 c. ketchup, 4 T. creamy horseradish and the juice of half of a lemon.  This isn't very "hot," meaning that buzz your nose gets when you eat horseradish.  If you like more buzz, up the amount of horseradish!



Thursday, December 22, 2011

I'm Gonna Give You Christmas Quiche!

Come On-A My House by Rosemary Clooney
I had help with my post today and my helpers also picked the song.  I had forgotten all about this Clooney classic, but, when I asked them for suggestions, this literally burst from Lara's lips!  She and Erin did a little impromptu performance for me, which led me to check it out further.  I had to agree with them - this song was perfect! Here we were, friends gathering to share each other's company and food!  And, oh, what food it turned out to be!  Love this recipe!  Love, Love, Love it!  It's simple.  It tastes fresh.  And it's positively festive in it's appearance - all decked out in red and green.  If you're looking for something to serve Christmas day, may I suggest this beautiful quiche?  "I'm gonna give you a peach and pear and I love your hair, ah!"  Too fun!
Say hello to my friend, Erin!  

She just happens to be the oldest daughter of my good friend, Lara.  Erin is one of four daughters in a most amazing family.  I wonder, sometimes, how the roof stays secure on their house with all the fabulous ideas flying about within those walls!  They are a brain bank.  Looking for a solution to something or a new idea?  Give them a shout - chances are they'll come up with the most innovative idea you've ever heard.  I'm a bit of a fan.

With all this talent and creativity in the atmosphere, you can imagine my surprise when I learned that they had never made a pie crust (gasp!!)!  We were in the middle of a pasta-making afternoon when this sordid detail came out.  They expressed their sincere desire to learn, though, and I knew that that was something with which I could render aid!  Soooo -

Erin and Lara came over today to learn how to make pie crust.  It was their idea, naturally, to bring ingredients for a quiche as well, thereby putting their new skill to a practical use AND providing us with a great opportunity to have lunch together!  They also brought along a delicious loaf of bread and some sparkling cider to go along with our meal.  Perfect!

I showed them how to make pie crust by hand as well as by using a food processor.  Erin will be returning to college again after the holidays and doesn't have access to a food processor there.  It was important that she know how to do this simple task without machinery!  

I demonstrated how to properly broadcast flour across your work space.


We talked about the importance of using super cold fats and water.  I explained how you didn't want to over mix the fat and that there should be visible little globs throughout the dough.


I showed her how to roll out the dough and how to see if it was big enough by flipping the pie tin upside down on it and making sure there was about 1 1/2" of dough extending beyond the edge.


Then I showed how to carefully fold the dough in half, then quickly slip it into the pie plate.


At last, I showed her she didn't have to resort to the old fork tine hash marks on the crust because the pretty crimp was so easy.


She watched me do one crust and then stepped in and did the other to perfection!  She's a quick study and I hope she's as proud of herself as I am of her!

We then started prepping the ingredients for the filling.  Lara set about chopping and seeding the tomatoes.


Erin shredded the swiss cheese.


The recipe also called for basil so I took the opportunity to demonstrate how to do a basil chiffonade.
It's easy and goes like this -
First, stack the leaves of fresh basil, one on top of the other.


Then roll them up like a cigar and thinly slice cross-wise.


You end up with beautiful ribbons of basil.


Place the eggs, cream, and seasonings in a bowl and whisk together until well combined.


Roll out your pie dough and fit into the pie plate and crimp the edges high to prevent any spill-over.  Sprinkle the cheese in the bottom of the crust followed by the chopped tomatoes and the basil.  Finally, pour your egg custard mixture over the top.  This is Erin's pie crust.  See how beautifully she did on those crimps?


We decided to throw on a little extra cheese at the last minute.  
Bake for 45 minutes, let cool for about 10 minutes.  This allows the custard to set up well.  Then enjoy!  The flavors are classic and comforting and the crust is delicate and flaky.  What more could you wish for?


Thanks to Lara for helping me with the photography today.  She's a real gem!

Christmas Quiche
Printable Recipe Card
4 oz. Swiss cheese, grated
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 bunch fresh basil
4 eggs
1/2 c. half and half
1 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1/2 t. onion powder

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Place crust in pie plate and crimp edges high.  Sprinkle the cheese over the bottom of the crust followed by the tomatoes and basil.

Beat together the eggs, half and half and seasonings.  Pour over the fillings.  Bake for 45 minutes or until crust is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  Let cool in pan for 10 minutes.  Serves 8.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Repeat the Sounding Joy!



Song Pairing:
Joy To the World by Jewel
I love how Jewel opens this song with such gusto and glee.  It truly matches the spirit of how I felt when I finally finished today's recipe.  I've been playing around with the idea for this cake in my head for almost a month now, making tweaks here and there as I went.  When I put the finishing touches on it and helped myself to a slice I was all smiles and joy!  Yes - there was kitchen dancing today!  It "ate" just how I wanted it to!  A breath of orange as you opened your mouth to take the first bite, teeth sinking through pillows of moist cake and fluffy frosting, and bits of crunch as you encounter little pieces of crushed candy cane, bringing the fresh flavor of peppermint to the party.  It's a happy cake!  One fit to celebrate a special occasion - such as the birth of a King!  


The idea for this cake came from a childhood memory.  I spent the first 18 years of my life in the Warren, Pennsylvania area - except for this one year when my family moved to Mesa, Arizona.  I attended the fourth grade at Whittier Elementary.  It was a wonderful year for me, experiencing a culture and climate so foreign to what I had known up to that point.  My classmates taught me to play jacks, tetherball, and this fascinating way to eat an orange!



What you do is wash your orange and give it a good roll on the counter to get the juices flowing.  Break the ends off of your candy cane and stick one end right through the peel and in to the orange.  Then start sucking!  Within about ten sucks the juice starts shooting up through the little tubes within the candy cane.  The candy cane is now a straw!  


The flavors together are wonderful - peppermint and orange - and I think the colors involved here are as much a pleasure to the eye as the flavors are to the mouth!  For some real fun involving sucking the juice out of an orange, please take a minute and watch this short clip from a show I love called Cranford.  It's a beautiful mini-series based on the book by Elizabeth Gaskill and this scene always makes me smile!  Perhaps if Miss Deborah had had a candy cane . . . !

As I thought about how to capture the memory of oranges and candy canes in the form of a dessert, I was surprised to find that I really wanted to make it into a cake.  You see, I'm not a cake person.  I'm always being disappointed by cakes.  Too dry, too heavy, too much not like a pie!  But the more I thought, the more I knew it had to be a cake and I was excited for it to be a cake!

Flavor-wise, I had the peppermint and orange combo already set.  I really wanted to have something else, though, that would kind of come in on the lower notes and act as a beautiful background for that pair to really stand out.  Chocolate, my dark and beautiful friend - as always - first came to mind but I had to dismiss it because it would overpower the other flavors.  The chocolate went over to the corner of my mind and sat there and sulked a good while - refusing to leave completely.  And, then, I started paying attention to what it was mumbling as it sat there, all dejected.  It said, "You know, I wasn't saying it had to be big, ole, dark and bold me!  It could be white chocolate, you know!"  Hmmm.  A white chocolate buttercream really would play well with the orange and peppermint.  And to prove myself right, I went right over and popped a Candy Cane Hershey Kiss in my mouth followed by an orange juice chaser! 

This cake was getting more and more interesting all the time!  I now had three things I didn't really like in the mix - the fact that it was a cake, first of all - and secondly, I don't usually eat candy canes - and lastly, white chocolate?  No way!  Somehow, though, I knew they all had to be here in this cake.  And I set out to prove it!  And here's what I came up with!



Peppermint-Orange Cake with White Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

Cake:
1 box white cake mix - (until I find a good white cake recipe to share, we are all taking some help this holiday season and using a mix!
Ingredients from cake mix directions
2 oranges
10 candy canes, wrappers removed, and crushed
12 Candy Cane Hershey Kisses, unwrapped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Empty the cake mix into a mixing bowl.  Using a microplane, remove the zest from both oranges and place in the bowl with the cake mix.  Take some of the cake mix and rub it down the microplane to help remove all the essential oils left behind from the orange peel.


Mix according to package directions, pour into two 8" round pans that have been sprayed with cooking spray.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when placed in the center.  Let cool in the pans for about five minutes.  Then remove from pans and let completely cool on a rack.  While it's cooling, make the simple syrup and the frosting.

White Chocolate Buttercream Frosting:

1 c. unsalted butter, softened
2 1/2 c. powdered sugar
pinch of salt
6 oz. good quality white chocolate, i.e. Lindt or Guittard, chopped
1/4 c. heavy cream
1/4 t. vanilla extract

Place chopped white chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat, stirring often, until melted.  (Don't even think about using white chocolate chips here.  There is something added to them that messes with the consistency of the final product.)  Set aside and let cool.


Cream the softened butter and sugar and pinch of salt together until light and fluffy, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Mix the cream and vanilla together and gradually add to the butter and sugar mixture while the mixer is running on low speed.  When the cream and vanilla are incorporated, add the melted and cooled white chocolate and fold.  When all has come together, increase the speed to medium high and beat for about three minutes.  This will leave you with a most wonderfully fluffy frosting - like angel wings!

Orange Simple Syrup:
1 1/4 c. sugar
water and orange juice to measure 1 1/4 c. 

Place the sugar in a small saucepan.  Squeeze the juice from the two oranges used for zest in the cake.  Add enough water to measure 1 1/4 c.  Add to the pan with the sugar.  Heat over medium heat and stir until sugar dissolves.  Remove from heat and let cool.


Cake assembly:

Using a long serrated knife, carefully slice off the "hump" on the top of the cake.  Aha!  The baker's secret to level cakes!  If you have little ones around, they will happily help eat the "hump."


Then, also using a long serrated knife, slice each cake in half horizontally, like this:


Prepare your cake serving platter and place a cake bottom in the center.  To help keep my mess from getting everywhere, I place strips of wax paper or parchment paper just under the edges of the cake all around.  They will easily pull out when I'm finished, leaving a clean display.

Using a pastry brush, sweep some orange simple syrup across the top of the cake, being careful to not soak too heavily.

Next, spread some of the buttercream frosting on top and then sprinkle with some of the crushed candy canes.

Repeat this for each layer.  When you get to the top, spread the frosting across the top and down over the sides.  I really like a "speckled" look on the sides.  To do this, simply take your spatula and lightly press against the frosting and lift directly off.  Little peaks will form!  Sprinkle more of the crushed candy canes across the top of the cake and place the Kisses around the outside edge of the top.  

Take a fork and slightly breath in as you bite.  The orange will waft in and say, "Well, hello!  Welcome to our party!"  Joy to the world!