Sunday, November 27, 2005

I want candy

Next weekend, I'll be getting together with my mother- and sister-in-law for their annual tradition of making Christmas candy. They each make two or three kinds and then share. They've invited me to join them in the kitchen, and now I'm looking for successful, festive recipes! Here's what they're planning on making: truffles, toffee, peanut brittle, and I forget what else. Anyone have other favorite candy recipes?

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Thanksgiving pies

I love baking pie, far more than I like baking/ cooking anything else. I'm not sure why I find it so enjoyable. Perhaps it's because making pastry is a slightly delicate process, but also a forgiving process. I am always happy at Thanksgiving because I get to bake lots of pies (five this year, plus a caramel-pecan cheesecake): two regular pumpkin, the ginger-streusel pumpkin, pear, and a chocolate tart. It is a good thing that pie can be forgiving, because after hours of baking, you start to get a little stupid. Luckily, everything turned out well enough. My chocolate chemistry didn't quite succeed, but the tart was still tasty despite a slightly lumpy ganache. The pear pie was delicious although the almond, cookie-like crust was a bit of a bother (very crumbly and cranky). But in combination with the cardamom filling, it was well worth the trouble.

A few years ago I cooked nearly the entire Thanksgiving dinner for my family (in response to my mother's declaration that we should all just go to a restaurant). But I think she felt like her territory was being invaded, so now I am only allowed to take on certain portions of the dinner, which usually means dessert (which is fine by me--I'd rather bake a pie than baste a turkey). This year, mom even bristled a bit when I decided to cook some green beans (but what could I do?--she was going to serve canned beans!) It's funny to observe my mom's response to these holiday meals. She really doesn't like cooking, but she wants to maintain her role in the tradition.

In other Thanksgiving news, my lovely niece Frances Jane was born, joining me as a Thanksgiving baby. She wasn't as big as me (10 lbs., 11 oz.) but she did arrive with a respectable, feast-day appropriate weight (8 lbs., 14 oz.). I attribute much of my interest in food to the fact that my mom cooked the entire Thanksgiving dinner while in labor with me, so hopefully Frances will be equally enamored with food.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

gumbo z'herbes

I was in a mood today to roll up my sleeves, chop me some veggies and really commune with the leafy greens, so I decided to make gumbo z'herbes. The name is a contraction of "gumbo aux herbes," and it's also known as green gumbo.

This is not like the gumbo you probably know. There's no okra, no andouille sausage. It turns out that gumbo z'herbes is traditionally prepared on Holy Thursday to be eaten on Good Friday. Fridays in Lent would normally involve seafood, but Good Friday calls for food to be even more scaled back, hence this soup. Don't be scared, though. This soup does not taste like guilt and penitence. It's lush and hearty and completely soul-satisfying; that is, thoroughly Cajun.

You can use pretty much any sort of leafy greens -- kale, mustard greens, even beet and carrot tops -- but I used collard greens, spinach, and chard. Along with leeks, celery, green onions and some herbs, they're sauteed with garlic and spices and file gumbo powder, then pureed and mixed into a roux, along with a dose of Tabasco. The recipe I used calls for you to add smoked ham, but as it seems I have agreed to marry a vegetarian, I omitted it. But I replicated the smokiness by sauteing a chipotle pepper with the greens. (My bottle of Tabasco is also of the chipotle variety, so that helps too.) I can only imagine this soup would be breathtaking with the ham and/or some sausage, though.

Monday, November 21, 2005

We Three Hungry Hungarians

A pair of friends from grad school (who knew the other two Tarts back in the day) and I have joined the Fort Collins Public Library book club. Not content just to read the book and discuss it with other bibliophiles, we decided to enhance the literary experience by having dinner together before the meetings, with each meal inspired by the book, author, or subject matter. Last month was Embers by Sandor Marai, set in 20th century Hungary. Here is, of course, what we started with:

Steven, our whimsical host, prepared chicken paprikash in the crock pot. It was simple and delicious!

The fun part was watching the dumplings bob up and down as they boiled in their bath:

For the Hungarian side dish, Kelly had prepared a cabbage salad with apples and fennel seed. She was convinced that it was atrocious, but we liked it. Plus it was purple.

And thanks to the loyal readers of Three Tarts, I had found a recipe prosaically and redundantly entitled "Hungarian Dessert Cake" which actually made me think of Paris and allowed me to bust out my two (count 'em) electric crepe pans:

One crepe after another is layered with whipped cream,

finely grated chocolate,

and apricot preserves,

then sprinkled with toasted almonds and baked.

That's the most work I've put into a cake in a long time, perhaps ever. But it was extremely luscious and great fun! We had a fabulous Hungarian meal, and I plan on making the paprikash myself later. As for the "Dessert Cake," well, I'm already wondering what could happen if I substituted Nutella for the plain chocolate and varied the flavor of the jam!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Iron Chef a la Colorado

Remember adorable Noah, the budding three-year-old gourmet? Well, he's back with zucchini!

Cynde, Katie, and I--and our hubbies--decided that our next group Supper Club effort would be a Harvest Dinner to celebrate autumn in Colorado and that all dishes had to include the theme ingredient of ... squash! Both winter and summer squash would be acceptable. Here's what we came up with:

Appetizers: Breaded and baked zucchini and yellow squash rounds with three dipping sauces: ranch, pesto, and tomato sauce. (This has turned into my favorite recipe for summer squash--it gets me my fried food fix without actually counteracting the benefits of fresh veggies by deep frying them. Thanks, "Cooking Light" magazine!)

Main dish: Savory flan made with winter squash. (Cynde, you'll have to remind me which squash it was and what its delicious but funny-sounding sauce was called.)

Side dishes: Zucchini bread and summer squash ribbons.

Dessert: Pumpkin custard. (Ack--no photo! Sorry, Katie.)

So was the harvest meal a success? Let's ask Noah!

Noah, pre-zucchini bread:

Noah, post-zucchini bread:

Next up: a dinner in December with ginger as the theme ingredient. Stay tuned!

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

belated thanksgiving tips and links

T--All of my Thanksgiving recipes come from Epicurious, not suprisingly. I've had great success with this herb-rubbed turkey .

I made the gravy once, but didn't love it--that may be because I'm not so great at making gravy. The turkey itself is beautiful and tastes amazing. I also prep the turkey by cutting an orange in half and rubbing the juice and all over the turkey (inside too) to freshen things up and give the turkey a slight citrus flavor. In addition to placing herb sprigs in the cavity as the recipe recommends, I also add shallots and pierced lemons.

As for dessert, I love this pumpkin pie with ginger streusel:
You said your sister doesn't like pumpkin pie, but she may just like this one, as it's quite an improvement on the typical. And at Thanksgiving, don't you need two desserts?

This chocolate cranberry tart is also delicious and lovely.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

my first Thanksgiving dinner

This year, I'll be hosting my first Thanksgiving dinner. Since we're sticking around Riverside for Thanksgiving, we thought we'd invite over our local friends who also aren't traveling. Also, my sister's hoping to come visit. So, we should have a good-sized group. Needless to say, I'm pretty excited about hosting the mother of all dinner parties. Of course, we'll have the turkey, and I've got to make my mom's mashed sweet potatoes (they're topped with a buttery, cinnamony pecan topping instead of the traditional cloying marshmallows).

But we'll have at least a couple vegetarians present, so I need to think of a substantial veggie dish that can double as an entree for the vegetarians and a side dish for everyone else. I have a butternut squash dish that would seem really at home on a Thanksgiving menu, but that's too similar to the sweet potatoes, and the sweet potatoes are just non-negotiable, I'm afraid. They're so good. (Frankly, though, if it were up to me, we'd have sweet potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes, and potatoes au gratin. heh.)

Maybe a really good stuffing/dressing. Anyone have a killer recipe, something that could stand on its own as an entree? (I won't be baking it inside the bird.)

I think I'll also make challah bread, as well as some kind of non-starchy vegetable. And I have a good cranberry sauce recipe, if I can find it. Dessert has me stumped, as my sister's not a big fan of pumpkin pie.

Any suggestions, anyone? Have a turkey secret your mom swears by? What dishes do you crave at Thanksgiving?

food porn! food porn! food porn!

To continue the autumnal comfort-food theme we've got going on, here's the mac and cheese I made when my mom requested it on her recent visit.

This is the best mac and cheese ever -- it's Mark Bittman's recipe from "How To Cook Everything." It starts with a roux-based white sauce that you add lots of sharp cheddar and Parmesan to. I also add just a little bit of mustard, which sharpens the flavor just a tad without it tasting like, well, mustard. And then it's baked until the noodles on top get all crunchy...sigh. Cheese makes me happy.

Monday, November 07, 2005

finally, this Tart bakes a tart

I am a sucker for things with almond in them. I never met an almond croissant I didn't like. So when I found a recipe for a pear and almond tart, I couldn't resist. I made the pear version a couple weeks ago and it was good, so today I'm making an apple variation because I happen to have some apples around.

By the way, I love my apple corer. It made the job easy:

The pears go in the tart unadorned, but for this version with apples, I tossed them with a little lemon juice, sugar, and cinnamon. Oh, and some fresh-grated nutmeg. I let that sit while I prepared everything else.

On to the crust. Flaky pastry crust is one thing I've never quite fully mastered, but I'm getting better. My great-grandma would be pleased. In my grad-school stint working at a bakery, I learned that the keys are very, very cold butter and just barely mixing long enough to make things hold together, like so:

I shaped that into a disk, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and chilled it while I worked on the filling, which involves almond paste, an item the bagger at the grocery store invariably places in the bag of non-food items. I'm not sure why. The packaging is vaguely reminiscent of toothpaste, I suppose.

Anyway, the filling is the almond paste, sugar, flour, butter, eggs, and vanilla. If you've got a food processor, electric hand mixer, or a fancy-pants stand mixer, now's the time to break it out, because you'll never get the lumps out of the almond paste otherwise. The stuff is very, very firm. (The almond paste itself, that is. The filling will be sort of a cake-batter consistency when you're done.)

I pressed the crust into the tart pan and spread the filling in the bottom. The recipe calls for an 11-inch tart pan, and mine is 9-inch, so I had some leftover filling. I learned the first time around to go easy on the filling, lest the tart overflow and you find yourself having to clean the oven. I arranged the fruit on top and dotted with butter, and here it is, all dressed up and ready to go into the oven:

I tried to do a concentric-circle thing but it looks kinda goofy. Oh well. And here's the finished product:

It got a touch too brown in spots, as you can see -- my oven in this apartment runs reeeally hot. That's even with putting the rack in the very bottom of the oven! Alas. Anyway, I can't wait to taste. (It's still cooling. We'll see how long I can stand to let this go on.) The pear version was fantastic.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

more autumnal soup--with a Carribean flair

I've been eating out all week, so it was a relief to go to the grocery store today and actually cook something for myself. I still had a pumpkin from my final foray to the farmer's market, so I cooked it up yesterday in order to make pumpkin black bean soup today. It was deliciously easy and a nice blend of savory and sweet.

Friday, November 04, 2005

cooking-related ephemera

Since I apparently have no time anymore to cook, all I can offer is some food-related online archival entertainment. Take a look at this database of advertising cookbooks.

My favorite are the jell-o ads, especially this one of a man rushing to save his jell-o from the path of an oncoming train (and who wouldn't do the same, really?)