Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cooking Light Night: Election Night Slow Cooker White Beans & Smoked Sausage

Election Day is less than a week away, so of course I've started thinking about the menu! In 2000, before we or any of our friends had kids, we threw a returns-watching party on Election Night. I won't tell you if we celebrated or mourned that night, as this is not that kind of blog, but I will tell you that we SURE WERE GLAD that we had eaten a stick-to-your-ribs kind of dinner like sausage and beans to get us through a long night of states being givethed and takethed away.

So here we are, eight years later. Given that the polls will still be open in California when my bedtime rolls around, we won't be having a returns-watching party this year, but we do so love a manufactured tradition in our house, so you can bet that we'll stick with our traditional Election Night sausage and white bean supper! In fact, as if by fate, an email from Cooking Light landed in my inbox a couple of weeks ago: "42 Slow Cooker Favorites," and it included this recipe for "Tiny French Beans with Smoked Sausage."

Cooking Light recommends that you use "flageolets," which are small french beans. While I am willing to run around town looking for some crazy foods, dried beans ain't one of them. Cooking Light does helpfully provide an online source for flageolets, Indian Harvest. I know that any day now, I am going to cross into that "crazy foodie" territory and start trolling the internet for specialty ingredients, but you can rest assured that my first online food purchase will not be beans.

Okay! Now that I am finished disparaging beans and declaring them not worthy of my time, let's move on to my bean dinner, shall we? First, the ingredient rundown. To the surprise of no one, Publix did not have flageolets. They had Great Northern beans, so rather than using "tiny French beans," I used "medium American beans."

I used fresh rosemary instead of either dried or fresh thyme. Because I knew that even if "my guy" doesn't win, fresh rosemary makes everything seem a little better. And I threw a bay leaf in there, just 'cause. And for extra credit, I used some leftover homemade chicken stock instead of canned.

This is an easy dish to put together. Brown up your sausage. Then saute up some shallots and garlic. Rinse and sort either your fancy pants beans or your regular old beans, depending on how lazy of a shopper you were.

Regular ol' beans:

And then mix it all up in your magic Crock Pot, and go vote!

The recipe said to cook this on high for 8 hours, but mine was definitely done after 6.5 hours. It was actually looking a little angry by then, to be honest with you, and I don't think it would have enjoyed the extra hour and a half in the hot tub. Next time, I might try it on low and just see how long it takes.

This is a great fall dish -- hearty, comforting, and quick to put together. And who doesn't love coming home and having dinner ready and waiting? When you're in the mood for a hot bowl of something, add this one to your short list!

And thanks again, Clara, for generously sharing your Cooking Light Night idea and avatar with us!

Tiny French Beans with Smoked Sausage, from Cooking Light, March 2003

8 servings (serving size: 1 1/4 cups)

2 pounds smoked turkey sausage, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/3 cup minced shallots
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups dried flageolets or other dried white beans, (about 1 pound)
2 cups water
1/4 cup minced fresh or 1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 (14 1/2-ounce) cans fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add sausage; sauté 5 minutes or until browned. Remove from pan, and place in an electric slow cooker. Heat the oil in pan over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic; cook 1 minute, stirring constantly.

Sort and wash beans. Add beans, shallot mixture, water, and the remaining ingredients to slow cooker. Cover and cook on high 8 hours or until beans are tender.

Nutritional Information
Calories:397 (30% from fat)
Fat:13.1g (sat 3.7g,mono 4.3g,poly 3.7g)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

TWD: Tacky Tacky Chocolate Chocolate Cupcakes

It's fall, my favorite season. I know that because the calendar tells me so. I know it because I see lots of apples, pumpkins and butternut squash showing up on my favorite food blogs. And because there is a huge haunted house inside Target. Therefore, I choose to ignore the 80 degree weather outside, and do what I've done every fall since I moved to the South, and dress myself and my children for what I wish the weather to be, not for what the weather actually is, and sweat my way through another beautiful Alabama October.

My kids are in the fall spirit, too. The other night, they told me that they wanted to decorate for Halloween. And before I could stop myself, I had a pleasant little daydream about fall decorating. I visualized rooms like this:

With maybe a pretty pumpkin/gourd display like this on the front porch:

I imagined hues of red, gold and orange; natural elements that evoke the essence of autumn; fallen leaves, pumpkins, mums. But it turns out that this vision of fall decorating was not even close to the one that my children had in mind, so instead, we went with the iridescent "HAPPY HALLOWEEN" banner:

When I see homes or garden displays similar to the ones above on HGTV, or in magazines, they will usually describe it as something like "understated elegance." Well, my children vastly prefer a decorating style that would be better described as "overstated excessiveness," which, if I recall correctly, was very popular in the 70s.

So on the mantel, we have this:

Yes, that's a plastic black cat flashlight, and an eyeball that rolls around randomly and blares the theme to "The Adams Family" at a decibel level previously only heard at Metallica concerts.

Friendly ghost and monster hanging out on the rocking chair along with needlepoint pillow of the Rotunda at UVA (Go Hoos!):

And the trash bag ghost hanging in the corner of the den! My son made that in kindergarten last year:

Here on an end table, we have glow-in-the-dark skeletons resting against my son's picture, half of a Little People Halloween play set (the people are missing), and a monster that dances and sings "Superfreak."

I say that when you have a theme going, you just need to run with it. Maybe someday I can do "tasteful," but for now, "tacky" carries the day, and that's just fine by me. Tacky is much more fun. So I decided that we would fully embrace my children's "more is more" philosophy when making these Chocolate Chocolate Cupcakes, which were chosen by the always fun and talented Clara of iheartfoodforthought. I am sure that many mega-talented TWD bakers made a stunningly elegant presentation of these cupcakes, and I cannot wait to check them all out. Us? We thought it would be best if the cupcakes matched the rest of the house, so I gave the kids full creative license in decorating these. And they took their jobs very seriously:

Because only by maintaining their steely focus could they ensure that no square millimeter of cupcake was left candy cornless.

Making the cupcakes was uneventful, which is an event in itself around here. The batter was highly lickable, and created some lofty expectations for the cupcakes. In fact, a bowl of this batter, a spoon, a comfy chair and a copy of People magazine might just be my personal definition of heaven.

The cupcakes looked like cupcakes when they came out of the oven:

Amanda made these a few weeks early and told me that next time she'd take them out of the oven a few minutes earlier, as she thought they were a tad on the dry side. I followed her advice and took them out after 20 minutes. They were definitely done by then, and I agreed with Amanda that they were a little dry. Dorie writes that these have a "close crumb," which may be world-renowned bakerspeak for "they're a little dry." Keep in mind that I don't have a particularly sophisticated palate, though, as evidenced by the fact that up until just last week, if the occasion called for chocolate cupcakes, I would have called on my good friend Betty Crocker Super Moist (which is, well, SUPERMOIST!!) But the flavor was great, and anyway, who would even notice the relative dryness/moistness of my cupcakes under all those Jack 'o Lantern Peeps?

The frosting, er, ganache, was wonderful. I used milk chocolate instead of bittersweet because I was trying to appeal to a youthful crowd. We had a lot of fun with these!! Clara, thanks for picking a fun recipe that helped us get into the Halloween spirit in the way that only an inverted candy corn nose can!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Cooking Light Night: Pasta with Spinach and Prosciutto, and some Award Business

I'm really excited to finally join in on some Cooking Light Night fun. Clara, a really fun and talented blogger from I Heart Food for Thought, put together this cool avatar:

and has graciously allowed those of us who are interested to use it when blogging about our own cooking light nights. Just link back to Clara when you use it! Thanks, Clara!

Despite what you may think given the decidedly non-light nature of the Dorie Greenspan and Barefoot Contessa recipes that I enjoy blogging about on a weekly basis, the vast majority of the cooking that I do myself would be considered "light" cooking. I've been a Cooking Light subscriber for years. I love the philosophy of this magazine. It believes, first and foremost, that food should be a pleasure, and that it should taste good. It never compromises on flavor. It preaches moderation -- I don't think there is a food in the world that Cooking Light would consider verboten. If a particular ingredient is a stereotypically "unhealthy" one, such as bacon or cream, Cooking Light finds ways to use small amounts of it in high-impact ways. I'm rarely disappointed by a Cooking Light recipe. It is really hard to go back to "saute onion in stick of butter"-type cooking after making enough Cooking Light recipes to realize that healthy preparation methods can turn out equally good (and in many cases, better) food. So when I saw that Clara was doing a Cooking Light Night, and had kindly welcomed others to join her? Sign me up!

Speaking of Cooking Light, do you mind if I digress for a moment and show you my own personal prison? Here is an end shot of our island, which holds some of my cookbooks:

Let's zoom in closer:

Oh, I can hear your collective gasp of horror from here. Yes I did. I started collecting the Annual Recipes cookbooks. And now I can never stop. This is the problem with collecting in general, but PARTICULARLY with collecting items that are part of an annual series. Christmas ornaments. Lenox plates. Cooking Light cookbooks. If they decide to retire the series, you are off the hook. But what if they don't? Well, then you have some tough choices to make. There is the obvious "keep collecting until you die" option. That way, your children and grandchildren are left to figure out what to do with your 73 Cooking Light cookbooks, and maybe as they tag them for the yard sale they can laugh about what a crazy old bird you were, and how you refused to stop getting those damn cookbooks, even though you hadn't cooked a blessed thing in thirty years. Or, you can just decide RIGHT NOW to stop the insanity, and declare 2008 your final year. Does that make you as uncomfortable as it makes me? Yeah, who just abruptly stops an annual series collection in 2008? That completely offends any sense of order and symmetry. I may consider stopping in 2010 -- that's a nice round number, and I will then have the cookbooks from 2000 to 2010, nice round numbers all around (well, that's actually 11 cookbooks, not 10. Hmmm. I can't think about that too much. See why it's easier to just keep getting them?). If for whatever reason I don't stop in 2010, then I'm committed until 2015 at the earliest. I'm open to suggestions for dealing with this quag. I do enjoy these cookbooks, but I don't want to have to build an addition to house them.

Okay, on to my first Cooking Light Night dinner! Nancy, a really great food blogger and one of my favorite daily reads, is doing her own Cooking Light Nights, and she made a really fabulous dish last week - Pasta with Proscuitto and Parmesan. Well, after reading Nancy's post I was suddenly really in the mood for pasta with prosciutto and parmesan, go figure! -- so I was thrilled when I saw a very similar dish in the October 2008 issue, Pasta with Prosciutto and Spinach.

This is a very simple weeknight meal. Boil up some tortellini. Toast some pine nuts. Saute some garlic. Wilt a little spinach.

Am I the only one who finds wilting spinach to be oddly relaxing? When I am wilting spinach, I think of nothing else except how cool it is that spinach does that. My mind is rarely so focused on one thing. If you've had a stressful day, go wilt some spinach -- you won't regret it! It's better than yoga!

Not a whole lot more to say about this one. Once your spinach has wilted, you just mix it all up in a big bowl -- pasta, pine nuts, spinach/garlic, parmesan and prosciutto. It was a great dinner -- score another one for Cooking Light!

My only issues: I sorta kinda overdid the garlic, like I often do. I should know by now that even though all the recipes say brown garlic in oil on medium, I need to do it on medium low or I'll burn it. It's just what I do. But the meal was still good. Also, I might throw some raisins in there next time. Call me crazy, but one of my favorite sides is wilted spinach/olive oil/garlic/salt/raisins. I think a handful of golden raisins would provide a nice sweet element to this dish. Don't worry, if the very thought of that makes you cringe, and you're coming over for dinner anytime soon, I'll leave the raisins out of yours. I promise.

Here's the recipe:

Pasta with Prosciutto and Spinach, from Cooking Light, October 2008

1 (9-ounce) package fresh cheese tortellini (such as DiGiorno)
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 teaspoon olive oil
6 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 (6-ounce) package fresh baby spinach
1/4 cup (1 ounce) preshredded Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 ounces prosciutto, thinly sliced

1. Cook pasta according to the package directions, omitting salt and fat; drain. Transfer pasta to a large bowl.

2. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add nuts to pan; cook 1 1/2 minutes or until toasted, stirring occasionally. Add nuts to bowl.

3. Heat oil in pan over medium heat. Add garlic to pan; cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add spinach to pan; cook 2 minutes or until spinach wilts, stirring constantly. Add spinach mixture, cheese, and remaining ingredients to bowl; toss well.

Nutritional Information
Calories:292 (28% from fat)
Fat:9.2g (sat 3.2g,mono 2.3g,poly 1.1g)
Alyson Haynes, Cooking Light, OCTOBER 2008

Now, switching gears. I started blogging on a whim, because my friend Amanda said that TWD was fun, and because I wanted an excuse to start baking more. I could never have predicted how much that I would love it. The best part, hands down, has been getting to "know" fabulous cooks, writers, and photographers from all over the world.

Prudence Pennywise was one of the first non-family members to visit my blog when I first started. I remember jumping over to Prudy's blog at the time and being blown-and-I-mean-BLOWN away by her blog. Her writing is so sharp, crisp, and just plain fun. Her recipes are inventive, beautiful, and healthy. But I think what sets Prudy apart is not only the quality of her blog, but her generosity as a member of the blogging community. Even though Prudy already has her own large daily readership (just read her blog one time, and you'll become a daily reader, too!) and is well-established and well-respected in the food blogging world, she consistently finds the time to support her fellow bloggers (including many new bloggers) by visiting their blogs and commenting on them.

Matt of Matt's Kitchen is a newer blogger, like I am. The first time I read Matt's blog, I knew right away that I'd become a regular reader. I feel a little bit smarter by association every time I read Matt's blog. His posts are always fun, interesting and honest, and I always find myself eagerly awaiting Matt's next post.

Prudy and Matt tagged me for this award:

and given the respect that I have for their talents, I'm flattered, to say the least. Thank you, Prudy and Matt!

There is a "meme" (i.e., chain letter of sorts) attached to this award, in the form of lists of sevens. Heck, I'm game! But if I "tag" you below, and you don't feel like playing along, that's fine by me. I just wanted you to know how much I enjoy your blog!

7 things I did before
1. Small town grocery store cashier in the days before scanners
2. Ice cream scooper on Martha's Vineyard, where I served Billy Joel a frozen yogurt cone and uttered the highly forgettable "you should see our large!" in response to his "that's a small?" comment
3. Waitressed and then bartended (despite not knowing how to mix drinks) at a fun restaurant in Westport, CT -- I just prayed every day that the townspeople would order beer or wine. Never did see Martha.
4. Research assistant for renowned legal historian
5. Spent three glorious years in Charlottesville, VA, where I met my hubs. Hope we retire there someday!
6. Clerked at a law firm in Manhattan, and then practiced law in same firm's Washington, D.C. office before getting married and moving South.
7. Slept 8 hours a night

7 things I do now
1. Laundry, and lots of it!
2. Drive around town in my Odyssey, picking up and dropping off people.
3. Serve as a den leader (along with hubs) for my son's cub scout den
4. Work part time as a bankruptcy lawyer in a large corporate law firm
5. Set up the DVR to "record series" of Jon & Kate Plus 8
6. Pick up toys, even though I know that they'll just get dumped out again immediately.
7. Read the following periodicals online daily: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Slate and Pop Sugar.

7 things I want to do
1. Learn to sew
2. Create beautiful scrapbooks/babybooks for each of my children
3. Run a half marathon in February (I'd better get on that!)
4. Become a better money saver
5. Learn how to accessorize
6. Get organized.
7. Travel with my family someday, once we are done with diapers, pack 'n plays and the need for naps.

7 things that attract me about the opposite sex
1. A great sense of humor
2. Intelligence
3. Loves, and is loved by, children
4. Loves, and is loved by, the elderly
5. Intellectual curiosity
6. Kindness
7. Open-mindedness

7 Favorite Foods
1. Brick Oven Pizza
2. Lasagna
3. Mashed potatoes
4. Macaroni and cheese
5. Steak
6. Chocolate chip cookies warm out of the oven
7. Parmaggiano Reggiano

7 things I Say Most Often:
1. Ouch.
2. I wish that I could help, sweetie, but I don't speak whine.
3. Do I need to start counting to five?
4. This is like trying to herd cattle.
5. Just try one bite.
6. This place is a complete wreck.
7. I hope that Santa Claus didn't see that.

7 Tags (and award too; pick one up)
1. Kelly at Baking with the Boys -- for being laugh-out-loud funny every week
2. Flourchild -- for the cool blog name, the sweet story behind the blog name, and for always doing creative and wonderful things with recipes!
3. Mary Ann of Meet Me In the Kitchen -- for sharing a smorgasbord of mouthwatering recipes that help me figure out what to make for dinner every week!
4. Bridgett of La Bella Cook, for always wowing me with her recipes. Her passion for cooking really shines through in her posts!
5. Deb of Kahakai Kitchen --for an all-around great blog that allows us to live vicariously through her as she cooks, eats and lives in paradise.
6. Caitlin of Engineer Baker --just good old fashioned fun reading, week in and week out. And Caitlin(mostly) does not even taste her creations -- she just gives them all away! I think that puts her on the short-track to sainthood!
7.Jacque of Daisy Lane Cakes -- a baker and cake decorator, and wonderful at all of it. Check out these adorable mummy cookies!

HELLO? Is anyone still there? Thanks for making it to the end. I'm really trying to be less long-winded with my posts, but when you add seven lists of sevens to my usual long-windedness, well, it's like being on long-winded steroids. Sorry!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Barefoot Bloggers: Vegetable Pot Pie

One thing that I love about food blogging is that it forces me to push out of my comfort zone in terms of the ingredients that I buy. Before I started food blogging, I would flip through a cookbook and see a recipe containing, say, swiss chard, and think "next!" Not because I don't like swiss chard, but because I don't like wandering around a grocery store in search of obscure produce, and I CERTAINLY don't like wandering around multiple grocery stores in search of obscure produce. But when you've committed to a blogging group, you don't just NOT make the recipe just because you don't know what bok choy is. No, you sweetly email your husband and ask him to locate bok choy for you.

In fact, ever since we've been married, or at least since we've had three children whom both I, and my fellow shoppers, prefer that I not drag to the grocery with me, I've emailed grocery lists to my hubs multiple times a week. No matter how hard I try to menu-plan, or how thorough I try to be during my main weekly shopping trip, it still seems like we end up needing one or two or twenty more things during the course of the week. So David is used to getting emails from me like this:

Subject: We Need

diapers (size 3)
trash bags
sliced sandwich cheese (2%)

Now that I am food blogging, he's still getting lots of grocery emails from me, but they look more like this:

Subject: Can you stop at Publix on way home?

And get

diapers (size 3)
trash bags
sliced sandwich cheese (2%)
saffron threads
fennel bulb
sharffen berger bittersweet chocolate

And bless him, he never complains about the suddenly bizarre contents of my list -- all he asks is that I put it all in a single email and not send him a separate email each time an ingredient pops into my head. I'm working on that.

This week's recipe Barefoot Bloggers challenge for Vegetable Pot Pie, chosen by my favorite blogger-in-paradise, Deb of Kahakai Kitchen, had a few of those exotic ingredients that would have caused me to skip this recipe altogether in my pre-blogging days. I did leave out the Pernod because I didn't have it, and now that I've been food blogging for a few months, I realize that nobody will send the police after you if you skip an ingredient. So I made a mental note to be sure to buy some Pernod to add to the Vegetable Pot Pie next time I make it when we are NOT in the middle of a global financial meltdown.

And I almost left out the fennel, because I am not big fan of the flavor, but in the end I went with it. I'm glad I did, because it added an instant "party!" element to my kitchen, in that 80s hair band kind of way.

The long-lost sixth member of Whitesnake:

And it actually tasted good in the pie too -- an added bonus!

First step in the recipe was cooking the onion and fennel in Ina's usual metric ton of butter. I'll be honest: Ina and I are having some "trust issues" where butter is concerned (she does not yet know that we are having issues). Here is my butter philosophy: if the quality of the recipe depends on copious butter use, by all means, butter away. But if the butter does not really add a whole lot in terms of flavor or texture, then why are we using it? I felt a little bit foolish after sauteeing my leeks in a stick of butter for the Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup. So many people omitted, or significantly decreased, the butter amount that Ina called for, and obtained equally good results. With the Butternut Squash Risotto, I left out all but a small amount of butter, and the dish could not have been more amazing. So forgive me when I got to the part in the recipe about sauteeing onions and thought: "really, a stick and a half of butter Ina? I don't believe you."

Problem was, this was the base of the sauce for the pot pie, and I probably really DID need more butter than I ended up using (2 tablespoons, rather than the stick and a half that she called for), because my pot pies were a bit on the dry side. A full stick and a half? Probably not.

Well, enough butter or not, I eventually assembled a little fleet of pot pie vegetables:

and started on the crust. I got a little "water happy" when making my crust, and I was pretty sure that I ruined it. I thought about adding more flour to it, but then I was afraid that I would just end up overmixing it, which might even be worse than overwatering it. I thought about wringing it out like a towel . . . anyway. Well, as it turned out, the crust tasted wonderful!

That's what I like, a recipe that can withstand my efforts to destroy it. None of this "leave the pan for five minutes and almost burn down your kitchen" business. The fact that this crust survived my little rainstorm earns it a permanent spot in my "keeper" column.

David and I enjoyed these pot pies. He said that he couldn't help but dig around in there looking for chicken, but you know how the old saying goes: "you can give a vegetarian dish to a carnivore, but you can't make him not dig around for the chicken." Or something like that. I actually enjoyed this more with every bite, which completely defies the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns, and also explains why I have a hard time with portion control.

Thanks for picking this one, Deb! It's a hearty, comforting, soul-warming dish -- perfect for fall!


12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
2 cups sliced yellow onions (2 onions)
1 fennel bulb, top and core removed, thinly sliced crosswise
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups good chicken stock
1 tablespoon Pernod
Pinch saffron threads
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons heavy cream
1 1/2 cups large-diced potatoes (1/2 pound)
1 1/2 cups asparagus tips
1 1/2 cups peeled, 3/4-inch-diced carrots (4 carrots)
1 1/2 cups peeled, 3/4-inch-diced butternut squash
1 1/2 cups frozen small whole onions (1/2 pound)
1/2 cup minced flat-leaf parsley
For the pastry:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
1/2 to 2/3 cup ice water
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
Flaked sea salt and cracked black pepper
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and fennel and saute until translucent, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the flour, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 3 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Slowly add the stock, Pernod, saffron, salt, and pepper, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the heavy cream and season to taste. The sauce should be highly seasoned.

Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water for 10 minutes. Lift out with a sieve. Add the asparagus, carrots, and squash to the pot and cook in the boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain well. Add the potatoes, mixed vegetables, onions, and parsley to the sauce and mix well.

For the pastry, mix the flour, salt, and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the shortening and butter and mix quickly with your fingers until each piece is coated with flour. Pulse 10 times, or until the fat is the size of peas. With the motor running, add the ice water; process only enough to moisten the dough and have it just come together. Dump the dough out onto a floured board and knead quickly into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow it to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Divide the filling equally among 4 ovenproof bowls. Divide the dough into quarters and roll each piece into an 8-inch circle. Brush the outside edges of each bowl with the egg wash, then place the dough on top. Trim the circle to 1/2-inch larger than the top of the bowl. Crimp the dough to fold over the sides, pressing it to make it stick. Brush the dough with egg wash and make 3 slits in the top. Sprinkle with sea salt and cracked pepper. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, or until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbling hot.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

TWD: Pumpkin Muffins

There are certain things that I am always afraid to confess to people, for fear that they will start to think less of me. For example: "I made a special trip to six different stores in search of the People issue with Brangelina's newborn twins on the cover." And: "No matter what is going on in the world, I always read Dear Abby first when I open a newspaper." And finally: "my favorite pumpkin muffins in the world come from a bag."

I know that Dorie says that Sarabeth Levine's pumpkin muffins "ought to be the gold standard for all pumpkin muffins in the world," but for me, Chuck Williams has long set the gold standard for pumpkin muffins. I adore the Williams Sonoma pumpkin muffins, have made them for years, and have felt absolutely no need whatsoever for another pumpkin muffin in my life. I've always been a one pumpkin muffin kind of girl.

But I'm a loyal TWDer, so of course I decided to give Dorie's a try. I had a lot going on the day I made these muffins, and my kitchen was a wreck. I had made stock the night before to use in some Butternut Squash Risotto, and was skimming the stock and transferring some of it to baggies to freeze. When that got boring, I'd measure out some dry ingredients for the pumpkin muffins. Suddenly, I realized that one of my baggies had fallen over, and stock had spilled out onto the counter, soaking the bottom of a bag of flour. I dumped the flour into a large mixing bowl so that I would not end up with chicken stock-infused flour, and set the bowl on the opposite side of the counter so that I would not get it confused with the pumpkin muffin ingredients. Then I went to do some laundry, or watch a couple of downs of the Virginia game, or have a tea party with my three year old, or something, and came back to mix up the pumpkin muffins. When the batter was done, it seemed . . . odd. Sort of, what was it? -- stretchy. Rubbery. The texture was so familiar to me -- that shininess, that boingy-ness. I scooped a little up with my finger and knew right away -- it felt exactly like:

Silly Putty!!! There was no question in my mind that if I pressed the batter against the Sunday comics, I'd end up with the perfect image of Funky Winkerbean. (Am I dating myself here?)


I tasted my batter and found it to be rather flavorless. I could taste the pumpkin, but couldn't really pick up the spices. Dorie said that they would be "gentle," though. The woman knows what she's doing, who am I to question her? Surely this bland orange silly putty would bake up into something just grand. I filled up my muffin tin and popped those bad boys in the oven. I then started cleaning up my kitchen and was horrified to discover:

the bowl containing all of my dry pumpkin muffin ingredients. You saw that coming from a mile away, didn't you? Oh yes, I had mixed up the batter with approximately TWO THIRDS OF A BAG OF STRAIGHT FLOUR, not my pumpkin spice flour mixture. It was only the presence of six impressionable little ears that stopped me from cutting loose with the most elaborate string of rhyming profanity since the release of the last Snoop Dogg record. I grabbed the muffins out of the oven, dumped them in the trash, slammed the tin onto the countertop, grabbed my keys, and told David that I was leaving to go buy more eggs. David called after me as I stormed downstairs to the garage: "do you think that maybe you need to take a little break from all this baking?"

Later that night I tried again on the dough -- it was really quick since I had already mixed up all of the dry ingredients! -- and the batter definitely looked and tasted like something that would become a really great pumpkin muffin, rather than a really great clay animal.

The muffins themselves? They were beautiful, and delicious:

The spices WERE subtle, but they worked so well together. The texture was perfect -- light and moist, with just the right amount of "crumble." The raisins and the nuts completed the package. These are particularly glorious when eaten warm with a little butter.

I now understand that the difference between my now-dethroned Williams-Sonoma pumpkin muffins and Dorie's pumpkin muffins is like the difference between Epcot Center France and real France. Epcot Center France is lovely, it looks a little like what you would imagine France to look like, people speak French and you can get a great croissant. But it ain't France. Likewise, the Williams Sonoma muffins are a bit of a caricature of what you think a pumpkin muffin should be: they are a pleasant orange color, and their pumpkin spice flavor nearly knocks you out. It has to, if it is to smell enticing enough when baking to lure you into the store, where you will proceed to purchase a pumpkin cakelet pan and an orange silicone spatula, when you were ONLY at the mall in the first place -- pinkie swear! -- to get jeans at Old Navy for your six year old.

I love Epcot Center, don't get me wrong. And I'll still eagerly accept the clerk's offer of a sample when I stroll into Williams-Sonoma in October (I might even take two). But from now on, when I want a real pumpkin muffin, I'm making Dorie's. In fact, I've already made these four times -- the silly putty, a batch for a family trip, another batch for family trip because we ate too many of the first trip batch before leaving on trip, and again just because we love them so. So thank you, Kelly of Sounding my Barbaric Gulp , for choosing a muffin that is sure to ring in the fall for my family for many years to come!

And I'll close with a gratuitous picture of two of my pumpkins in their pumpkin shirts with the pumpkin muffins (because I am all about taking a theme one step too far):

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

TWD: Lenox Almond Biscotti

My sweet 13 month old is going through some "issues" right now, which is making our kitchen time together a bit dicey. First, there is the separation anxiety. Yes, if I so much as take a step towards leaving the room, or heck, a step towards leaving Sweet Baby's personal space, Sweet Baby completely loses her baby marbles. I only wish that I were as great as Sweet Baby, at the tender age of 13 months, seems to think I am. I will have to be sure to remind her of these days when she's 13 (years) and asks me to park a few blocks away so her friends won't see me. This separation anxiety complicates my time in the kitchen, because it means that I frequently find myself cooking with Sweet Baby in one arm, which leaves only one free hand for the bag of flour/mixing bowl/sieve/chocolate chips/cutting board/measuring cup/spatula that I am also trying to manage. As should be abundantly clear by now, I really need full use of all of my God-given appendages if I am to stand half a chance of succeeding in the kitchen.

Then there is Sweet Baby's stranger anxiety, which means that I can't invite strangers who actually know how to bake to come into the kitchen and help me. I am patiently waiting out the separation anxiety and the stranger anxiety, but I am having a much harder time figuring out what to do RIGHT NOW about Sweet Baby's affliction with their lesser known cousin, KitchenAid anxiety.

Yes, that's my Sweet Baby, having a small (okay, a large) come-apart because I turned on the Kitchen Aid. Things have gotten to the point where if I so much as take my Kitchen Aid out of the cabinet, Sweet Baby will start wailing. I'm at a loss about what to do about this. I mean, my kids are my life, of course, but I've had my Kitchen Aid longer than I've had my kids, and my Kitchen Aid does not wake me up in the middle of the night, talk back to me, or bicker with the Cuisinart. It's staying put.

And my trusty Kitchen Aid helped me mix up the dough for this week's Lenox Almond Biscotti in a flash. But aside from the dough-making portion of the recipe, the written instructions were not terribly clear to me. Visuals would have helped. Having a cryptologist in the house would have helped. First, the recipe said to make two logs about 12 inches long by 1.5 inches wide. I had a really hard time imagining how these

could possibly turn into 30 biscotti. Then I remembered my preternatural ability to make even the chunkiest of cookies flat

and I relaxed a little bit. Maybe my knack for turning out flat cookies would finally work to my advantage. And sure enough, after the first bake:

I could finally begin to see how this biscotti making business was all supposed to work. But then after waiting for them to cool for 30 minutes, Dorie says to cut the logs up and "stand them up like a marching band." A marching band? When I think of marching bands, I think tall, proud, upright.

Surely Dorie did not want me to stand up my biscotti up tall, as if they were playing the French horn? I decided that that would be physically impossible without the liberal use of Betty Crocker frosting, and that what Dorie really meant was to stand them up like a marching band at, um, naptime?

Maybe that minor revision will make it into the next edition of Baking.

After the second 15 minute bake, I found that some of my biscotti were still pretty soft. And who likes a soft biscotti? Nobody! I am not sure how much longer than 15 minutes that I had to bake some of these, but it was definitely at least 5 minutes more -- a pretty significant amount of time, at least as far as baking is concerned. But by baking them longer, some of the ones on the ends started to look overdone. Basically, after the initial 15 minutes are up on the second bake, you kind of have to watch these closely, take out the ones that are done, and keep baking the ones that are still soft. It was actually kind of annoying, to be honest with you, but SO WORTH THE EFFORT, because these are UNBELIEVEABLY good.

I made a double batch of these and brought most of them along on a trip to the lake with David's family this past weekend. They were a big hit, and were pretty much gone by the time we left on Sunday. These are definitely one of my favorites of all of the TWD recipes that I've done so far. They are already on the "Christmas cookie" list. And the "company is coming to town for the weekend" list. And the "it's Thursday night and I haven't made those Lenox Almond Biscotti in a couple of weeks" list. You name the list, these biscotti are on it. Thank you, Gretchen of Canela & Comino, for introducing me to my new favorite non-chocolate cookie.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Barefoot Bloggers: Butternut Squash Risotto

This week's Barefoot Bloggers challenge comes from Rachel of Rachel Likes to Cook. Rachel, if I knew where you lived, I'd walk over and hug you right now for picking this. Yes, this risotto brings out the crazy stalker in me. It is absolutely one of my all-time favorite dishes ever.

And let me tell you, the risotto and I really bonded over the course of the week. For a variety of reasons, it took me about 5 days to finally complete this, so thinking about, nurturing, and tending to butternut squash risotto became as natural to me as breathing by the time we finally ate it. It really became kind of like my fourth child. On Friday, I did my shopping for this; not a long ingredient list at all, but I don't usually keep pancetta or saffron threads on hand. On Saturday, I made the stock, which I planned to use for making the risotto on Sunday. On Sunday, I started out on track by roasting the butternut squash in the afternoon:

But then my husband and son did not get back from their Cub Scouts meeting until close to 7:30, and with having to get the kids bathed, read to and in bed at a reasonable hour, it just did not seem to be the right time to be diving into risotto. Then on Monday night my son had soccer practice until after 7, so again it was no go on the risotto. You know, I definitely subscribe to the "let kids be kids and don't overschedule them" philosophy. My son, who is six, plays just one sport and does Cub Scouts, which on paper did not seem like it would be too much. And yet between practices, games, meetings, camping trips, and other special events, these two activities can easily take up 5 nights a week! He's six! I just don't know what we'll do when the younger ones start getting into activities, or the activities start getting more involved than they already are. Hmmm. Wait, what were we talking about again? Oh yeah, risotto!

Fortunately, the planets all aligned on Tuesday, a mere five days after I began the process, and I was finally able to make this. The recipe starts out by telling us to sautee the shallots and pancetta in 3/4 of a stick of butter. I used about half the butter that Ina calls for, and it didn't seem to be missing a thing. In fact, next time I'll cut the butter down to just a tablespoon or so. Don't tell Ina.

Being risotto, it required a lot of standing, a lot of watching, and a lot of slowly adding liquid to the pan. What it did not seem to require was constant stirring, and for that, I was grateful. You just add some stock, give it a stir once in a while, and add more stock when the last stock addition is mostly absorbed. The saffron turned it a pleasant yellow color:

At the end, once it's off the heat, you add in the butternut squash and the parmesan. And then the angels start singing. Yes, this is THAT GOOD. I figured that it would be good -- risotto usually is, but I was not expecting to be completely blown away by this the way that I was. The butternut squash adds a mild sweet flavor to what is otherwise a savory dish. The combination is just fabulous. Hubs enjoyed it as well. My two older kids, the ones who subsist on nothing but air and Flinstones, would not touch it, which was a shame because I knew that they would like it if they would just try it. My one year old, who will knock people over to get to a half smushed banana on the floor, devoured it in record time, as I knew that she would.

I can't wait to make this again. Thank you, Rachel!


1 butternut squash (2 pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
2 ounces pancetta, diced
1/2 cup minced shallots (2 large)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (10 ounces)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Peel the butternut squash, remove the seeds, and cut it into 3/4-inch cubes. You should have about 6 cups. Place the squash on a sheet pan and toss it with the olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, tossing once, until very tender. Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat the chicken stock in a small covered saucepan. Leave it on low heat to simmer.

In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and saute the pancetta and shallots on medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until the shallots are translucent but not browned. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains with butter. Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes. Add 2 full ladles of stock to the rice plus the saffron, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir, and simmer until the stock is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes. Continue to add the stock, 2 ladles at a time, stirring every few minutes. Each time, cook until the mixture seems a little dry, then add more stock. Continue until the rice is cooked through, but still al dente, about 30 minutes total. Off the heat, add the roasted squash cubes and Parmesan. Mix well and serve.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

TWD: Caramel Peanut Topped Brownie Cake

. . . and may I never unleash destruction in a kitchen again like I did while making this Caramel Peanut Topped Brownie Cake. Amen.

It started innocently enough. David and I have our 10th anniversary coming up soon, and to celebrate, I decided to make a cake using corn syrup that I bought right around the time we were married:

But first, I emailed Amanda and asked her if corn syrup goes bad. Soon after, she responded "Julie doesn't think so. Is it still liquid?" I looked at it. It was mostly still liquid, but had a crystal city of sorts forming along the bottom of the jar:

I decided not to take any chances. I mean, since joining TWD, I've invested in pans and dishes of various odd sizes, exotic liqueurs, fine international chocolates, precious spices, and a blowtorch. And I finally decide that a $2.00 bottle of corn syrup is where I draw the line? I quickly saw the absurdity in this, and asked David to fetch me some Karo on the way home from work.

The cake part of this was relatively uneventful.

I did trip over a chair that the kids had dragged up to to counter to help, spilling a brand new bottle of vanilla in the process. And right after that, I walked over to the fridge and hit a puddle of water on the floor that my son didn't mop up after helping himself to a drink of water, and wiped out cold (and you see why I had reservations about using a blowtorch?). But that was all small potatoes compared to what was to come.

It was time to make the caramel. Dorie says "cook until it reaches a deep amber color." About 10 minutes into the process, I looked at my caramel and thought "hmmmm, that looks like a light amber to me.
Let me go start a load of laundry, and it should be close to deep amber when I get back." LESSON #1: DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MULTITASK WHEN MAKING CARAMEL.

When I got back to the kitchen a couple of minutes later, it was not a deep amber, but a burnt amber.

As I was assessing the awful boiling tar in my pan, and doing a quick calculus about whether it could be salvaged (no, I really WASN'T thinking straight) the fire alarm started wailing. And wailing. And wailing. Now, you should know that I completely lose my wits when alarms are blaring. I know that this is probably not a good trait in a grownup. But when an alarm goes off I suddenly feel like a four year old again, and I just want to cover my ears and cower in a corner.

Unfortunately, the alarm going off was the ADT alarm, not the battery-powered smoke alarm (from which we could simply remove the batteries). David ran into the room and yelled over the din of the alarm "I DON'T KNOW HOW TO GET THIS ALARM OFF!" I yelled back "NEITHER DO I!!" We threw open the doors and turned on the fan. David made his way to the keypad and yelled "WHAT'S THE CODE??" I yelled back "I DON'T KNOW!!!" (Aren't I useful to have around in a crisis situation??). We tried out several possible code combos and finally hit the right one. The alarm mercifully stopped. I could breathe again. Then David said "you know that the ADT people are going to call now." Sure enough, ADT Central Command called seconds later. David answered the phone. He said, "hello, yes, thank you for calling. We're all fine, thanks. Just a little sugar carmelizing incident in the kitchen. The password? Hmm, hang on one second." He asked me the password. I knew that if I couldn't come up with the password, ADT would send the real police or fire department out to make sure that an intruder had not broken into our house, tied us all up, and proceeded to burn caramel in my kitchen. I felt like I had already caused enough damage for one night, and I really would not have been able to live with myself if a busy, hardworking firefighter or police officer was dispatched to our house as a result of the fact that I am an idiot. I closed my eyes and thought really hard. I remembered the password.

Even though I can make any short story long, this all really happened within a matter of minutes. I still had a pan full of boiling black post-caramel sludge to deal with. Of course I did what any person completely lacking common sense would do and poured it down the sink. LESSON #2: IF YOU FOOLISHLY DISREGARD LESSON #1 AND BURNT CARAMEL RESULTS, DO NOT POUR IT DOWN THE SINK UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

I watched in horror as the remains of the caramel hardened into granite-like formations all over my kitchen sink, and inside the garbage disposal.

My mind raced back to a little over a year ago, when we were scrambling to finish renovating the kitchen in our new house so that we could move in before our baby was born. I remember hauling my huge eight month pregnant self to the plumbing supply showroom, and being overwhelmed by the dizzying array of kitchen sink choices, and Brandi, the sales rep, saying "you won't regret going with an 18 gauge stainless steel sink. It's indestructible." Oh Brandi. You had no idea who you were talking to.

I turned on the disposal just for kicks. The silence was deafening. I looked at my pan. It, too, was completely coated with rock hard caramel.

I reached into the disposal to try to dig out some caramel, and cut my fingers up (not on the blades, but on the caramel, which was much sharper and harder than the blades). I got a putty knife out and started chipping away at my candy coated sink, and quickly realized that I had a better chance of being crowned the next American Idol than I did of removing the caramel that way. That's when I googled "removing burnt caramel."

I feel like I have made so many great blogging friends in the short time that I've been in TWD. I am amazed by the talent, energy, and creativity of the people who do this. I can't tell you how many times that I have had no idea what to make for dinner until I jumped onto Prudy's, or Nancy's, or Laura's, or Pamela's, or Andrea's, or Anne's, or Lori's, or Maria's, or Mary Ann's blogs. And there are so many others of you -- I couldn't possibly list all of the talented people who do this and inspire me day in and day out. I just don't bring much to the table, so let me take this opportunity to "give back" a tiny little bit in return for all that you have given to me:

Add at least 1T baking soda per 1C water
Bring to boil.
While mixture is boiling, take scrubber and give pan a good scrub. Be careful not to burn yourself!
Liberally pour mixture on any surface on which burnt caramel has solidified and scrub hard and quick. Repeat as needed.
Supplement with Diet Sprite as required. Carbonation is the key.
This recipe works on sinks, countertops, pans, and the insides of garbage disposals (although you may have to press the "reset" button as well.)

After successfully removing the hardened caramel with my new favorite recipe, I dusted myself off and tried again on the caramel. If you can believe it, I ACTUALLY THOUGHT ABOUT DARTING INTO THE LAUNDRY ROOM REALLY QUICKLY, just to hang up my daughter's leotard for the next day's dance class, but David blocked my path and said "how 'bout you just stand in front of that pan this time." It's not always easy being an ADD baker, you know. Under my reluctantly watchful eye, the caramel worked out much better the second time around:

My cake:

I had one piece (it was quite good) and then I threw the rest of it away, because that cake is cursed -- cursed I tell you!! -- and I couldn't possibly share it with the people I love, or even with the people I just like. If there were people out there that I didn't care much for, I might bring them this cake -- it's tastier than a voodoo doll! -- but I am easy to please and pretty much like everybody. There was some baaaaaaad juju going on with that cake, and I felt beaten up and bruised after making it (probably because I WAS beaten up and bruised), and I also felt inexplicably sticky for about four days after making this. At the end of the day, I think I need my recipes to be a little more "forgiving" than this one was. Thank you for picking this, Tammy of Wee Treats by Tammy -- as usual, I am sure it was just me, not the cake. On to the pumpkin muffins!
Blog Design By: Sherbet Blossom Designs