Thursday, December 27, 2012

Gorgonzola Cranberry Walnut Bread





My father doesn't have much of a sweet tooth--or so he says, since I distinctly recall him eating butter pecan ice cream and orange sherbert when I lived with him as a child--but regardless, I decided to make him a cheese bread for Christmas instead of cookies. I like to give people things they want to get.

It's often said that "it is the thought that counts" with gifts but we all know that is a lie. The Cindy Dreamhouse I got when I was five or six or so--which was taller than I was and had a doll elevator--I remember as the 'gift to end all gifts,' sod all of the rhetoric of "as long as we are together, it doesn't matter." Puppies, ponies, bikes, computers are all lovely thoughts, but much nicer in the flesh, unless you are given your older sister's outgrown pink Barbie bike and you are a ten-year-old boy.

But, in a way, I suppose the thought does count in the sense that the dollhouse said: "this is what you want, and we love you enough to get it for you, even though it said some assembly was required."  A hand-me-down inappropriate bike says: "we think so little of you, we didn't even bother to buy your sister a gender-neutral orange bike so you wouldn't be made a fool of on the playground."

But no gift is always better than a bad gift. Carefully listen when someone says "no, you shouldn't have."  They may mean: "NO!  you shouldn't have."  Or, they may mean: "no, you SHOULDN'T HAVE." As in, I am desperately trying to think of how to get rid of this even as I fold it back in its tissue wrapping.

Bad gifts that I can recall include a fluffy, shedding fake angora sweater that looked like a pseudo- Indian blanket; a doll with green yarn hair; a strange, fake bejeweled bookmark in the shape of a strawberry (think Strawberry Shortcake meets trophy wife); one of those sweaters with knitted roses hanging off of it like a dying rose bush; and a matching pencil, address book and notebook set from a dollar store with a seascape on it that looked so sad and washed out I would have cried if I had gotten it when I was ten (but was thirty when I received it instead). 

My mother worked as an administrative assistant, though, and got some of the worst gifts I have ever seen from her co-workers--strange, cheap lotions that looked like they would rub your skin off; a pink clock in the shape of a grotesque Victorian doll; even Beanie Babies (to be fair, the woman was a collector and my mother's friend, but still...). And my mother got some lotion from a family member she tried to return to the cosmetic counter, only to discover it was the nonreturnable 'gift' customers received with every purchase.

I have to say, though, that the best 'bad gift' I heard about  recently was something received by a very hippie couple with whom I take yoga.  Last year, they got matching jogging suits.  Like, sweatpants and sweatshirts--the kind you wear when you are a child.  The jogging suits were both the same color and style: 'his and hers.'  "I know you guys are into fitness," the giver said.

"No, you SHOULDN'T HAVE," they responded and promptly donated it to the Goodwill.  "I hope that the charity split up the set," said the wife,  "because I would hate to do that to someone."

I hope my father enjoyed this cheese bread.  It's not sweet, but the tartness of the dried cranberries and the nuttiness of the walnuts are a nice compliment to the strong-flavored cheese. I based it off a favorite salad combination of mine--Gorgonzola on spinach, tossed with cranberries and walnuts.

Gorgonzola Cranberry Walnut Bread

 --yields 12 slices--

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon chili powder

2 large eggs, beaten
3/4 cup whole milk
4 tablespoons (1/2 a stick) melted butter, plus more for buttering the pan

4 ounces Gorgonzola cheese
1/4 cup cranberries
1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, plus more for 'flouring' the pan

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Grease a 9x5 loaf pan with butter and 'flour' it with the spare Parmesan cheese.  Put one or two full tablespoons of Parmesan cheese at the bottom of the pan.

2. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, and chili powder in a bowl.

3. Combine the eggs, milk, and melted butter in another bowl.

4. Combine wet and dry mixture. Gently fold in the cheese, cranberries, and walnuts.

5. Pour in the prepared loaf pan, sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese.

6. Bake for 40-45 minutes until a toothpick can be extracted clean. Be careful not to insert the toothpick into a clump of 'cheese.'

7. Cool and remove from pan.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

White Chocolate Cranberry Pistachio Brownies





One of my earliest Christmas memories is being pulled by my mother over the snow and ice on my small red sled.  My grandmother lived only a few streets away and it was too snowy to drive the car.  For many years, my grandmother always hosted the family Christmas party.  She had no large tree, only a small, plug-in golden tree, which I found quite sad.  But I loved the food.  My grandmother couldn't cook, but unlike some non-cooks who feel obliged to throw together some ghastly casserole or recipe they found on the back of a package, my grandmother would lay out a smorgasbord of cheeses and salamis, antipasto, dried fruits and nuts, chips and dips.  With hunks of Provolone cheese and pepperoni, dates, and potato chips, I was delighted, since the sight of most real food left me kicking the table and whining for dessert. Of course, there was candy and cookies as well, including the hard Russell Stover ribbon candy my grandmother inexplicably loved.  Everyone would sit and eat in a nice, casual fashion, relaxing and playing with the Christmas presents the kids brought with them.

The only pesky problem was my aunt, who would chase me around with a glass of water and constantly dilute the root beer in my Christmas cup because she was worried I was getting too fat.  I was amazed how something that tasted so good straight up could taste so wretched by the addition of a slug of water. Of course, the same aunt, when I grew up and became thin, complained I was too skinny.

Regardless of what you think is right to eat for Christmas, I hope you enjoyed it. I have no food traditions I am carrying on, recipe-wise, thanks to my grandmother's legacy.  I hated eggnog as a kid (shudder) but loved the taste of the bright green and red fruits on canned fruitcake.  I sucked on peppermint candy canes and adored the little Santa chocolates that were tucked in the shoes we left out one year, when one of my teachers taught us about St. Lucia's Day.  I've eaten out and eaten in on Christmas, usually with my mother.  I've had everything from fruit salad to most of a box of nonpareils (not the best idea). I made cookies from mixes and snarfed red and green M&Ms.

But I don't feel bad about the lack of consistency in my Christmas 'food life.' Christmas, although for so many of us is 'the big holiday' is pliable enough, dinner-wise, to fit so many traditions, and even the standard Christmas menu has changed so much over the years.

I remember reading one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, "The Blue Carbuncle," which revolves around the purchase of a Christmas goose.  Everyone ate geese back in the 19th century but as a kid not even I was crazy enough to ask to eat a goose, and the people who cook them today at home are regarded as an equal mix of insanely ambitious and crazy.  Ditto with mince pie, although I did have that once and rather liked it...

Roast beef, turkey, fruit cake, pumpkin pie, cookies, chocolate, eggnog, mulled wine, all are fair game at the Christmas table...so why not white chocolate?  These base of these festive non-chocolate brownies (I guess, if you wanted to be non-PC and get all George Jefferson about them, you could call them 'whities') accentuate the green of the pistachio and the red of the cranberry.  You could use candied fruit as well, but I'm trying to leave the ghost of my (overly) sweet tooth to Christmas Past.

 
White Chocolate Cranberry Pistachio Brownies

Adapted from Better Homes and Garden

--yields 12-16 brownies--

Ingredients

6 ounces white baking chocolate
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 beaten eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup shelled, salted pistachios (plus more for sprinkling on top)
1/2 cup dried cranberries (plus more for sprinkling on top)

2 ounces white chocolate, finely chopped (for 'frosting')

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 8X8 pan with nonstick or greased foil.
2. Melt the 6 ounces of white chocolate and butter in a bain marie over low heat. Cool.  Whisk in eggs, sugar, and vanilla until well combined.  Fold in flour, add nuts and cranberries.
3. Pour in pan. Sprinkle a few more nuts and cranberries on top.  Bake for 25 minutes.
4. Sprinkle 2 ounces of white chocolate on brownies after removing from the oven.
5. Return to oven for one minute to soften white chocolate if necessary.  Spread white chocolate with a knife.  Cut into squares when completely cool.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mexican Wedding Cookies

Mexican wedding cookies are yet another kind of Christmas cookie that seems to be ubiquitous but which I never had growing up. I'm sure they must have been around somewhere, because their snowball-like appearance makes them perfect for any kind of winter-themed party. You can also dress them up with colored sugars, or form them into crescents to make a C-is-for-Christmas like shape. I supposed I was more fixated on brightly-colored chocolate, icing, and sprinkle-encrusted things to notice their presence.

Of course, I never had Mexican food of any kind in my home when I was growing up--I was discussing this with a few of my friends recently.  Oddly enough, despite our different backgrounds, we noted that virtually all of our parents had very similar tastes: plain meat (steak, chicken) and 'red sauce' Italian food for 'ethnic' nights.

My mother viewed my fondness for anything with spice with a mixture of horror and frustration. I still remember one of my 'primal food memories' to be the first time my mother and father took me to a Chinese restaurant and I was entranced by the Hunan shrimp I ordered. Rather than praising my adventurous palate, from my mother's view, my eating preferences took a clear turn for the worse after that one, fateful day and the morale of the story was she should have never taken me there in the first place.

I also remember asking to go to a Mexican restaurant after discovering the wonders of tacos at a friend's birthday party.  My mother took me but ordered from the 'American' section of the menu and spent the entire meal looking at my chicken enchiladas with disgust. I don't think she even took her purse off her lap:  she looked as if she was afraid of being mugged by a bit of errant melted Monterey Jack or ancho that might escape off of my plate--enveloping her like the cloud that always transported the Tasmanian Devil in Looney Tune cartoons.

Of course, the 'Chinese' and 'Mexican' food I adored as a child was not particularly authentic.  And I doubt these Mexican wedding cookies are particularly Mexican, either. In fact, they're often called Russian tea cakes or 'snowballs.' (Although apparently there are slightly different ratios of nuts to flour, depending on the label, and the Russian versions more often use hazelnuts than pecans). Still, they are a nice, buttery little cookie and a wonderful addition to any cookie tray.

For the original version of this particular incarnation of the cookie, almonds were suggested.  I used walnuts.  You could also use pecans.

Mexican Wedding Cookies
 Adapted from All Recipes
--yields 36 cookies--

Ingredients
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup white, granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons water
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
Powdered sugar for 'dusting' 

Directions
1. Cream the butter and the sugar, then add vanilla and water.   Incorporate flour and almonds.
2. If the dough is too dry or crumbly, add water by the teaspoon until it comes together.
3. Chill dough for at least three hours. (I chilled mine overnight).
4. Preheat oven to 325F. Scoop rounded balls onto parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake for 15-20 minutes.
5. Roll in powdered sugar when fully cooled.

The cookies tend to 'shed' the powdered sugar, so I would suggest serving them in festive muffin liners.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Molasses Spice Cookies

I've been busy at work--I know, that is the generic excuse for every blog hiatus--but really, I HAVE been busy at work. So updates may be a bit spotty until after Christmas.  I have, however,been in the kitchen because the holidays don't wait until life makes it convenient to bake cookies.

I was going to blog on Friday but given the events of that terrible day, writing about food didn't feel right. I considered writing a post about my feelings on the various issues that have been connected to the subject of school violence. Yet it felt so forced: "gun control...and cookies."

I do have to say, though, that there is one thing that did annoy me about the media and social media coverage of the event, and that is the well-meaning reference to the victim as 'little angels.' 

People, these were kids, not angels.  I'm not a mom, but I can tell you--I know lots of kids I like very much and NONE of them are angels.

Kids, even six-year-olds, are complex, thinking individuals. Yes, there is something about children that is naive and unshaped by culture that is wonderful--and can be annoying or terrible, given how it manifests itself--but children are NOT angels.

Calling the victims angels reminds me of what I always liked least about Victorian literature--those perfect little girls like Little Eva and Little Nell who you just know are going to bite the dust of some vague, wasting illness within three paragraphs of meeting them. A 'little angel's' death is inevitable--they are just too good for this world to live. And there was nothing inevitable about the death of these all-too-real children.

The coverage I liked best came from NPR.  If you want a good read, I strongly suggest you read this, which is a biography of the some of the victims of the shooter. If nothing else, it is a reminder of how strong even a very young child's personality can be, like Emily Parker, who is described as "bright, creative and always willing to try new things, except food."  Almost immediately, you can picture the girl in your head--the frustrating kind of kid who is willing to help PREPARE the food and wants to know why it is made the way it is made, but won't eat anything but Wonder Bread, Skippy creamy peanut butter, and grape jelly day after day.

However, even when things are rough it's nice to go back in time and try some old favorites.  I'll wager if you asked someone what his or her favorite cookie might be, the response won't be 'molasses.'  Molasses is kind of a 'grandma' cookie flavor, and another interesting NPR piece on molasses cookies revealed that even an attempt to recreate an early 20th century molasses cookie was not pleasing to our 21st century taste buds, because our preferences for sweetness over spice have changed so much.  But because we cling to traditions--even if they are not our own traditions, for I never ate a molasses cookie until I was an adult--I decided to make them this holidays season. I loved them, as did the (adult) recipients, but some adventurous kids would like them as well.

I strongly advise using shortening for these cookies, as molasses cookies do tend to spread.  These are great for holiday cookie baskets, because they are easy to veganize.  Make one batch for the vegans on your list, another for everyone else.  I made two batches with eggs, one with flaxseed, and there was no discernible difference between the two versions.

I would like to say that this is the type of cookie that young Emily would have liked, but I doubt it. It is a strongly flavored, rich-tasting cookie and from her description, she strikes me as more of a sugar cookie or Oreo kind of girl. But perhaps with time, she may have learned to appreciate molasses cookies.  We will never know.

Molasses Spice Cookies

3/4 cup vegetable shortening (I used Earth Balance Shortening)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 beaten egg or 1 tablespoon flaxseed and three tablespoons of water
1/4 cup mild, unsulfured molasses

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspons salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cardamon
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger

White, granulated sugar for rolling

Directions

1. Using a hand or stand mixer, mix the shortening, sugar, egg (or egg substitute), and molasses together.

2. Sift the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. 

3. Incorporate the wet and dry mixtures.  Chill overnight.

4.  Scoop mixture out into balls, rolling in white granulated sugar before putting them on parchment-lined baking sheets  approximately 2 inches apart (cookies will spread somewhat). Bake in a preheated oven for 10 minutes at 375F.

5. Remove from oven when cookies start to 'crack' and 'crinkle.'
That's the dog's dish on the floor.  And yes, she did get a cookie that I ACCIDENTALLY dropped on the floor.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Browned butter pear cake

Last Sunday, in a morning yoga class, my eyes were transfixed upon the woman who put down her mat in front of me.  She was about 45, with unnaturally tanned skin, perfectly straight brown hair with strategically sparkly highlights, and a white Lululemon tank top and black Lululemon pants.  Just like some people put down a blanket or a strap to help them through the practice, she put down a stack of paper towels to use as tissues and immediately began coughing and sneezing.

When I was in college, when I was ill and went to class (which usually happened only once a semester), I'd often put my coat on the chair to my left and my backpack to the right and tell anyone who tried to take the chairs: "you don't want to sit next to me, I have the plague."

So I didn't feel bad looking around for another space in the room, but there was nowhere left free. Since the hurricane, the original branch of the studio I go to has been closed down.  My usual yoga studio is a lovely, airy space with a view of the ocean and located only two minutes from my house. The satellite studio is located in a nearby town which I guess some people would call 'quaint,' but which I think of as: 'retail space filled with stores selling everything you don't need at very high prices.'  There is a breakfast place that sells only fancy waffles and various hipster-type stores with overpriced fake vintage dresses and t-shirts nearby.  And I have to pay for parking. But the instructors are great, so I go.

So, I'm already annoyed about being there to some extent and then, for the rest of the class, the woman spends most of the time sneezing and coughing more than actually practicing, and I am in her direct line of snotty fire. Instead of counting breaths like you are supposed to, I count the tissues she manages to get through. The studio is so tiny and overheated it has a rather unwholesome, petri-dish quality to the atmosphere.

I thought little of the fact that later in the day I felt achy (although I haven't been sore after yoga for some time). The next day I woke up with what felt like something lodged in the right side of my throat and an unquenchable thirst that didn't go away. I wasn't congested, so I just sort of 'pushed myself' through my day, although I felt very odd.  The next day, my throat was somewhat better but my right nostril was totally clogged and I alternated between feeling feverish and having chills. I took some Tylenol, went about things as normally, but went to bed very, very early.  I didn't feel like I had a cold, though, because I wasn't that bunged up.

The next day, despite having slept longer than I had in months, I was sore in a different place of my throat and slightly more congested. I took the only other medication  I have in the house--I haven't been sick for over two years--which was some generic Sudafed. That drug never agrees with me, but by now I had to admit that I wasn't myself.  I actually felt okay during most of the day, but the early mornings and nights were pretty rough.  I also took the Sudafed since I didn't want to infect anyone else, since I was around other people and wanted to minimize the 'spew' factor. Sudafed dries me out horribly, leaving my nose reasonably clearer and turning my skin flaky and dry.

I thought I was getting better, but this morning I woke up incredibly nauseous with a pounding headache. Then I remembered how taking Sudafed caused me to throw up one of the few times in my life, skipped my next two doses and started to feel less seasick.

I'm no longer contagious according to the CDC, so soon I can get back to cooking and baking for others as well as myself soon--hopefully by Wednesday, to be on the safe side. This recipe I made in November, as a gift to give to a neighbor who helped me take down a precariously-fallen tree after the hurricane.

I've never gotten a severe flu before (nothing lasting more than three days) and I guess this wasn't 'severe' since I am still functioning, but I suppose I should consider getting a flu shot next year.  I've never been that sick, so I have never bothered to before.  But I suppose if I want to continue to pursue healthy activities like yoga in artificially warm, humid environments in the winter, I might want to...

And yes, I know it's bitterly ironic that someone who is as much of a nervous, anxious hypochondriac as myself didn't get a flu shot.

I apologize for the 'tin' but as I said, it was a gift and I didn't want to annoy my neighbor about returning a dish.

Browned Butter Pear Cake 

--Adapted from Recipe Girl--




1/2 cup butter


3 soft Bartlet pears, cored and chopped finely
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom (err on the side of too little rather than too much) 

3 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups granulated white sugar

4 large, beaten eggs
3/4 cup milk (I used whole milk)
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce



Browned Butter Icing

 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) butter
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
4 -5 teaspoons boiling water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease and flour two 9X5 or 8X4 loaf pans.

2. Brown the butter, melting it in a saucepan over low-to-medium heat until it begins to foam.  Remove and cool while assembling the other ingredients.

3. Toss the pears with the two tablespoons of white and brown sugars and the spices, leave to macerate.

4. Sift the flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar.

5. Mix the eggs, milk, and applesauce. Add the cooled brown butter.  Incorporate the wet and dry mixtures.  Add in the pears.

6. Pour evenly into the two prepared loaf pans. Bake for approximately one hour (cooking time will depend upon level of moisture of the fruit to some degree).  Remove when a toothpick can be extracted clean from the cake and cool.

7. While cake is cooking make the icing.  Brown the 4 tablespoons of butter, remove from heat. Boil the water and set aside.  Add 1 cup of powdered sugar to the butter.  Whisk vanilla into the butter, followed by more of the sugar, then the boiling water, one teaspoon at a time, until icing is formed.  You may need to adjust the amount of water and sugar a bit (adding an extra tablespoon or two of the sugar or a teaspoon of the water) get the icing to the right, pourable consistency.