Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Here are the presents!

No blogging for a while since we were in PA visiting my mother, and I of course was not cooking (though I did help chop once in a while). My mother does not, as a rule, cook either--it is entirely unfair, in my eyes, that she has not one but two gorgeous Wegmans stores nearby, bursting with fabulous vegetables and so many cheeses I get quite dizzy, while I have the world's crummiest Shaws (I went in there yesterday and they were out of whole chickens--I had to ask at the counter for them to scrounge me up one).

The trip out there went well, though we were delayed getting on the road as one of our cats had a sudden attack of something and wasn't breathing very well. So, rush her to the vet, wait for the vet to get there, and look at her, and tell us that she looks okay now, make arrangements with him to do some tests, arrange with the cat sitter to pick her up later on so that we can finally get going. While on the road the vet called to let us know that our cat has heartworm. Heartworm?! In a cat who hasn't been outside in her entire life? Apparently so.

But, back to the food. My mother (Nana, now that the grandkids have come along) did a good job for our visit--we had squash stuffed with a cheese, breadcrumb, and nutmeg filling one night, and simple roasted veggies over couscous another. My grandmother provided the traditional (for our family) Christmas Eve ham, potatoes, asparagus (cooked to a sorrowful fare-thee-well, unfortunately), corn, and salad. For dessert there were of course Christmas cookies, though I wasn't together enough this year to bring any.

We had gifts with my grandparents Christmas Eve, my mother Christmas morning, and my sister's family Christmas afternoon. Then on Friday we had JJ's first birthday, in which all of the above stopped by my mother's house. JJ seemed to like his cake (the very last Christmas cake they had at Wegmans, as it turned out -- their bakery seemed to have taken the day off, or something...). On Saturday we took the kids to Erie's Children's Museum and let them run around for a while, which was very much needed.

My cooking-related gifts this year were:
  • from D, a new pepper grinder (ours had started shedding bits of plastic, not good)
  • from D, a new timer/thermometer (ours gave up the ghost on Thanksgiving!)
  • from my in-laws, a creme brulee torch! and a book of recipes to go with it (cue Beavis voice...).
  • from my friend Dottie, a jar of herbes de Provence
And L got a cute little apron and chef's hat from her cousin, to wear when she's helping me. She is, by the way, coming along, little by little -- we had Chinese food that first night at Nana's house, and she sat right down and ate some broccoli and a little bit of rice, just like a normal person. She sat down to supper at my grandparents' table and had some salad. Last night, she asked for chicken--didn't eat any of it, but nor did she push her plate away and burst into tears, and she did eat a few bites of green beans. She's even started to let us know that she's hungry, which is something of a miracle.

The trip back was just as delayed as the one out there--the New York State Thruway was inexplicably closed at the PA end, so we turned around and took I-86 across NY instead. It was reasonably pretty, but it did take a bit longer than we would have liked. When we got home, we opened up a couple of cans of soup and called that supper.

Yesterday I spent most of the day doing laundry, and made a quick run to the grocery store. For my first night back in the kitchen, I roasted a chicken with garlic and herbes de Provence, put together a rice pilaf (the potatoes at Shaws being, of course, all green...), and steamed some green beans. Simple as it gets, and I quite enjoyed it.

A few days of vacation left, and enough on my "to do" list to energize without overwhelming me (for now). Bring on the new year!

Monday, December 15, 2008

"Where are the presents?"

Trust a four-year-old to get right to the point, once we had finished decorating the tree Sunday afternoon! I tried a couple of times to explain to L that the presents come later, but I'm sure we'll be getting the question more than a few times in the next week.

A busy, busy weekend, what with getting the tree and decorating the apartment and coping with a teething baby (again! this kid has had more trouble than I would have thought possible with that) and trying to fit in some baking. I keep thinking in some vexation that I got a lot more than this done last year, despite being in advanced pregnancy, but then remind myself that a) I only had one kid underfoot while doing it, and b) I was working from home three days a week, so I had at least three more hours to get stuff done in the kitchen.

Regardless, it was a productive time, baking-wise.
  • Christmas cutout cookies
  • Another batch of peanut blossoms
  • Midnight Crackles
  • Gingerbread
  • Whiskey cakes
Pictures and recipes to come, but I wanted to get this post up to make sure I did it!

Sunday night, after all of that was done, I made a pizza, and we all sat on the couch and watched Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, which is on my list of Best Things of All Time.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Nutmeg Cheesecake

The last office birthday of the year would just have to be my boss'. I just did a layer cake and a torte for the other two that fall during this season, so I sounded her out on the topic of cheesecake. This recipe was published in the Holiday 2006 edition of The Baker's Companion, put out by the much-worshiped (and they deserve it) King Arthur Flour--I don't know if they still do it, but my grocery store hasn't had it in ages now. I flagged the recipe immediately, but I never had a good excuse to make it. Cheesecake is not something I can make for just the two of us, it would be sitting around here for a week. And this is a very holiday cheesecake, not something that can be made at just any time of year.

I may have to find an excuse to make it every year from now on, though, because it is really, really, really good. It capped the afternoon very well--the group having taken the opportunity on a rare day when we were all in the office at the same time to go out for an extended lunch at Legal Sea Foods, we meandered back through the freezing rain (precursor to the ice storm that would come that night), occupied a conference room and set to.

I am a bit too self-conscious to take pictures of my baking while at the office. But here is the recipe:

1/2 c (1 stick) butter
1/4 c confectioners sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c plus 2 Tbsp AP flour
1/2 c chopped nuts

3 8-oz packages cream cheese, room temp
1 1/4 c granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
4 large eggs
1/2 tsp eggnog flavoring OR use 1/2 c eggnog and elimate the 1/2 c heavy cream - NOTE: I used the eggnog
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 c (8 oz) sour cream
1/2 c heavy cream
1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/4 c (2 oz) sour cream
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 c heavy cream

Stencil Decoration (optional):
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp confectioners sugar

To make the crust:
  1. Preheat your oven to 375F.
  2. In a medium bowl, beat the butter until soft.
  3. Add the sugar, vanilla, and salt, beat at medium speed until fluffy. Scrape the bowl to be sure everything is well combined, then mix in the flour and nuts.
  4. Press into the bottom and about 1/2-inch up the sides of a 9- or 10-inch springform pan. Use a piece of plastic wrap while pressing into place.
  5. Bake the crust for 11-15 minutes until lightly browned. Remove from the oven and let cool.

To make the filling:
  1. Preheat oven to 325F.
  2. Beat the cream cheese on low speed until no lumps remain, stopping to scrape the bowl once or twice.
  3. Add the sugar and salt and mix until well blended.
  4. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the bottom of the bowl after each.
  5. Stir in the eggnog flavoring or eggnog, vanilla, sour cream, and heavy cream (if using). Remember, eliminate the heavy cream if you are using eggnog. Stir just until the mixture is smooth.
  6. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake in a preheated 325F oven for 45-50 minutes. The edges of the cake will look set and a light golden brown, and the middle should still jiggle when you nudge the pan.
  7. Turn off the oven, open the door slightly and let the cheesecake cool slowly for 1 hour. During this time the center will finish setting. Cooling the cake slowly will keep the top from cracking (NOTE: No, it didn't! I got a spectacular crack) and ensure an even, smooth texture inside.
  8. After an hour, remove the cake from the oven and run a knife around the top edge to allow the cake to contract as it cools. Chill overnight or for two hours before topping.
To make the topping:
  1. Stir together the sour cream, sugar, and vanilla; set aside.
  2. Whip the heavy cream until stiff, fold in the sour cream mixture.
  3. Spread on top of the chilled cheesecake.
  4. If you plan to stencil the top, place it in the freezer for 2-3 hours.

To stencil the top: (I didn't do this part)
  1. Combine the nutmeg, cinnamon, and sugar.
  2. Remove the cheesecake from the freezer (be sure the topping is set) and place a holiday or other stencil on top. Sprinkle the spice mixture over the top.
  3. Carefully lift the stencil straight up and refrigerate the cheesecake until ready to serve.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

2008 Goals in Review

At some point in the past I stopped making "resolutions" and settled on "goals" instead. Somehow things seem more achievable that way. But since we are well into December now and I am unlikely to accomplish anything on this that I haven't already, a quick review seems in order.

My goals were divided into a few areas:
  • Financial--Save more money and pay off two of the credit cards. The latter we actually managed to do; the former has been haphazard, something to work on if we're going to buy a house next year.
  • Weight/Fitness--Lost the baby weight and then some, though that's largely to JJ's account, not anything that I've been doing actively. Found a local yoga class and attended semi-regularly throughout the year. I did not, however, manage to get any other sort of workout back into my routine, which I will have to do if I don't want to gain a lot back once the baby's weaned. The big challenge is finding some time....
  • Food--A mixed bag of accomplishment. I totally failed to reduce our grocery spending, though I like to think that's not entirely my fault, since prices have gone up on just about everything.

    I have done pretty well on including vegetarian recipes in our meal planning, terribly on adding more fish (expensive, and guilt-inducing what with every kind of attendant environmental problem), and so-so on adding more soups to my repertoire.

    I did not manage to fit a cake-decorating course into the year as I had hoped to do, so that stay's on next year's list. I did well on the "three new recipes a week" goal early in the year, but as the months wore on this fell by the wayside.

    I did well making use of local resources in the form of the farmer's market, the butcher shop, the local organic foods store, though the latter two were expensive enough to conflict with other goals.
  • Stuff--In the realm of material things, I was supposed to reduce my wish list by actually buying things off it, something I did spottily. Did better getting rid of stuff--many boxes of outgrown children's clothes and so forth were ferried to charity drop-offs over the year. We finally threw out some broken things that were taking up space, and we replaced the car, which was of course a major item.
  • Creative--I finished the Spelljammer campaign at long last. I did not get around to making a dent in the old tapes that are hanging around waiting to be looked at, though.
Overall, I think I'm going to have to give myself a C. If I have the following holdovers next year, and the house, that will be more than enough to keep me feeling like I'm not getting enough done....

2009 Goals:
  • Save out of every paycheck
  • Start lifting weights
  • Continue yoga
  • Take a cake decorating course
  • Try 3 new recipes a week, and track/organize them
  • Transcribe those old game tapes
  • Get rid of the futon, old computer stuff
  • Replace the couch

Monday, December 8, 2008

December Supper Club - Cookie Swap - Cranberry-White Chocolate Shortbread

One of our club's longest-standing traditions is that in December we go out for dinner and do a cookie swap, freeing everyone up from having to clean the house (again) to have people over (again) and make a whole meal (again). This year we went to Olive Garden, which I have to admit struck me as a rather peculiar choice, but the food was acceptable (short ribs and tortelloni for me) and since we were there early the place wasn't the usual zoo. L nibbled breadsticks and lettuce and ignored her pizza, JJ sampled two different jars of food and moved from lap to lap once he got restless, and we talked--mainly about the economy and such.

And of course we swapped cookies. I don't have the recipes anyone else, but here's mine, from kraft.com (of all places) via the Cooking Light bulletin boards. I had everything on hand to make them and they looked dead easy, which was a major factor in their selection with the two kids underfoot and very little sleep all weekend due to JJ's cold.

2 cups (4 sticks) butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 cups flour
1 pkg. (6 squares) BAKER'S White Chocolate, chopped
1-1/2 cups dried cranberries

Heat oven to 350°F. Beat butter and sugar in large bowl with mixer until light and fluffy. Add flour; mix well. Stir in chocolate and cranberries.Drop rounded tablespoons of dough, 2 inches apart, onto baking sheets; flatten slightly.Bake 10 to 14 min. or until lightly browned. Cool 5 min. on baking sheets. Remove to wire racks; cool completely.

Can you believe that I've never made shortbread of any sort before? These turned out pretty well, I think -- light to the tooth, sweet and chewy with cranberries. I might make them part of my annual repertoire.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Cinnamon Scones

A rare treat yesterday, in the form of a visit from our friends the Cs. We had last seen them just about a year ago, so it was nice to spend a couple of hours catching up. For brunch I made a strata, which I ended up not liking much, and the scones, which I did:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup oatmeal
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter - cut into pieces
1/2 cup cinnamon chips
3/4 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 375.

In a bowl, combine all the dry ingredients. Using a pastry blender, cut the cold butter into the dry ingredients until the dough is crumbly. Fold in the cinnamon chips. Add the buttermilk and stir lightly until the dough comes together to form a ball. Don't overwork the dough.

On a lightly floured surface, pat the dough into a large circle about 2 inches thick. Cut the dough into wedges with a knife; do not separate the wedges. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

Transfer dough to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 22 minutes, or until the edges are lightly browned.

After cooling, separate wedges with a serrated knife.

makes 8 scones
source: WW Recipe Review Board

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Udon-Beef Noodle Bowl

I don't know what it is about noodles, but even the word says "this will be good." This is one of my all-time favorite recipes, so much more than the sum of its simple parts and easy enough to make on a weeknight--though it does require some coordination and several pans, and preferably someone else to watch the baby!

Break out the chopsticks and give yourself permission to slurp. Use fresh udon noodles if you can find them, since they are fantastic; if not, dried will do. I would not use spaghetti as the magazine suggests, though, unless you are absolutely desperate. People will probably want seconds.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Golden Pumpkin Walnut Loaf

I've been meaning to make this for weeks now. Well, on Sunday JJ took a morning nap (those are unpredictable) so I went ahead and put this quick bread together. It's easy enough to make, though mine tend to turn out rather flat--I think that next time, I'll try a slightly smaller pan and see if I can get a shapelier loaf. Since I was bringing this to the office, I doubled the recipe (might as well not leave a half can of pumpkin sitting around) and made half with, half without nuts. I leave the raisins out entirely, as I'm not a fan.

Golden Pumpkin-Walnut Loaf
From Cooking Light

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (about 5 1/2 ounces)
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup canned pumpkin
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350°.

Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 7 ingredients (through mace) in a large bowl; make a well in center of mixture.

Combine sugars and eggs in a medium bowl, stirring with a whisk. Add pumpkin, oil, and vanilla; stir well. Add raisins and nuts; add to flour mixture, stirring just until moist. Spoon batter into a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 50 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes in pan on a wire rack, and remove from pan. Cool completely on wire rack.