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Brie Appetizers

I have been fascinated with brie ever since watching the movie "Waitress." in one of Jenna's inventive pies she paired brie, smoked ham and egg custard in a recipe for "Bad Baby Pie." Determined to use it in a pie of my own, I paired brie with mushrooms and thyme in a recipe for "It's All About Attitude" Mushroom and Brie Quiche. I even made a passable pie crust myself. It was a fantastic pie!

Since then I have bought a lot of brie. My daughter discovered that she loves it. I discovered that my husband does not. Myself, I could take it or leave it though I do think it makes an interesting ingredient.

My favorite brand for a multi-purpose brie is President. It holds its shape, is neither strong nor runny and is predictably pretty to look at. I often buy a wheel of brie if I am entertaining and buy the wedges for my daughter when she is home. So when I was contacted, after commenting on Robin Sue's post at Big Red Kitchen, and offered a sample of President's new brie log, I was glad to accept. I knew my daughter would be glad to be a taste tester and that I would enjoy pairing some flavors.

The brie log itself was rather pretty. The rind goes all the way around which adds to the aesthetics of the log but gives it a bit less of the smooth buttery texture that a cheese with more center might offer. Still it tasted good and made a great appetizer. The log is perfectly sized for cutting off 1/4 inch pieces and centering them on a cracker, then dressing them up with a bite of roast meat or fish or a bit of fresh fruit or colorful jam.

Not only has Robin Sue posted about this new brie product, but Veronica at Supermarket Serenade and Grace at A Southern Grace have also posted about the brie log and used it in a variety of interesting and festive ways.

I hoped to do something a little bit different with mine, but I wasn't sure what to try. My mind rested on a Christmas gift basket from Newburgh Country Store that included a jar of Hot Jalapeno Jelly and some honey as well as a box of delectable pears from Harry and David. I also had a pie crust and a variety of nuts in the refrigerator that I wasn’t using for anything in particular. I began to imagine pairing them in different ways and then got started making some snacks to share with my family.

I remembered a recent post at Dine and Dish where Kristen shared a recipe for Pie Crust Cookies. I didn’t want cookies really but I did want a sort of crisp and slightly sweet base for my first idea. So I followed Kristen's directions with my pie crust except that I cut the pastry into juice-glass-sized rounds instead of cookie cutter shapes. I placed the rounds on a baking sheet, pricked each twice with a fork and then sprinkled them with just a bit of sugar before baking them at 400 degrees until they were golden brown.

Then I toasted some nuts and when the pie crust circles cooled I assembled my brie appetizers. I topped the pastry rounds with a slice of the brie log and a small slice of pear. Then I drizzled each with a few drops of honey and sprinkled the top with chopped toasted hazelnuts.

Sweet and buttery this was a lovely appetizer. With a glass of champagne this would be a very appealing bite for a New Years Eve hors d'œuvres tray.

Next I took out some prepackaged water crackers and the jalapeno jelly. I topped each cracker with a slice of the brie log and a small spoonful of jalapeno jelly before sprinkling toasted pecans on top. Sweet and spicy with a crisp crunch the taste these hors d'œuvres was interesting, unexpected and delicious.

Both of these combinations got good reviews from all of my tasters. I’m sure there are many more variations you might try. What I found was that the brie log is versatile, pretty and practical. It can be sliced quickly and quite easily made into fabulous little party snacks that anyone would love. Pair it with whatever fruits or spread you have on hand and chances are you will have a crowd pleaser.

Snow Cream

It is Christmas Eve and the ground is blanketed in white. I woke up this morning to find it snowing again with another 4 inches or so of new snow on the ground. I smiled. This was what I had been hoping for since I looked through my Family Cookbook yesterday and saw the recipe for Snow Cream.

Snow Cream is a treat I have treasured since I was a child. It is made with that one magic ingredient that could be hard to come by during winters in Kentucky - snow! It was one of the first things I thought of when snowflakes did begin to fall. Even then the conditions had to be just right. It had to be at least the second snowfall of the year. It had to be the right kind of snow, soft and fluffy. Eagerly as I watched the snow fall I would ask my mother or aunt if we could make Snow Cream. I was thrilled when the answer was yes.

I don't remember actually making Snow Cream since I was a little girl. Over the years I forgot the recipe and the taste and texture of that dreamy soft cold vanilla custard receded to the vague corners of my mind. Then, one day when I was looking through some old papers, I came across a note in my mother's own handwriting.

In bright playful letters it was titled "Snow Cream." It listed 4 simple ingredients and then ended with the direction to "Add Snow." After all these years, and everything that has happened, there it was again, a recipe for magic, as singular and fine as any memory of catching a snowflake on my tongue. I was delighted with my discovery!

More years have passed without the opportunity to recreate this delicious memory in real life. Memory and opportunity have failed to intersect until today. And what could be more perfect than following my childhood memories to a sweet conclusion on the morning of Christmas Eve. I got out of bed determined to make it happen.

First, my husband and I grabbed a stainless steel bowl and harvested a quantity of fresh snow.

In the kitchen we beat together 2 eggs (Eggbeaters actually), 1/2 cup of sugar, a teaspoon or two of vanilla and 1/2 cup of milk. Then we mixed in enough fresh snow to thicken the mixture to the right creamy consistency, much like that of fresh homemade ice cream.

I was amazed at how I remembered the smell and the texture as we finished stirring it together; I knew it was right! And the taste was simply divine; sweet, creamy, a sort of cross between sorbet and gelato, a strong memory and a wonderful treat.

After scooping up bowls full we stored the remainder of our Snow Cream on the snow in the window box just outside my kitchen window.

There it helped to frame a wonderful view of this white Christmas snowscape.

Merry Christmas to all!

Last Minute Gifts: Peanut Butter Fudge Cutouts

Let It Snow, Let It....

We've been more or less snowed in for days now and, you guessed it, it is snowing again today. I don’t mind really. It is kind of fun in its own way. We haven't seen snow like this since we moved to the Pacific Northwest a decade or so ago. A few years ago we were iced in for a week in January and that was treacherously strange but it lacked the picture perfect beauty and gentle wonder of this December's snowfall. If nothing else this will be something to remember!
I have enjoyed watching the snow fall peacefully outside my window, wondering if the weatherman’s predictions will prove to be accurate, wide-eyed with a child-like appreciation of the power of nature. I have been counting my blessings and making the most of the situation. I have enjoyed the exuberance of an unexpected kitchen-full of hungry teenagers who slid down the hill to my house for a while, and the wonderfully generous gestures of friends and neighbors who stop by to see if we have been able to get out and if we need anything.
I have done all of this pleasant watching and waiting from the security of my own warm kitchen. Luckily, I had been to the grocery before the snow hit and my pantry was full. So while we haven’t been doing much of the usual pre-Christmas hurrying and scurrying, while I haven’t been able to buy or deliver gifts at the usual festive events, I have been in the kitchen cooking and baking and making candy.
I have been enjoying the challenge of new recipes, like the one for Blistering Peanut Brittle, and the fun of making recipes that remind me of home, like the one for Kentucky Bourbon Balls. Best of all, I have enjoyed making family heirloom recipes which are close to my heart, like the one for Peanut Butter Fudge that is carefully hand written in a cookbook my Aunt Hen put together for me as a wedding gift.

Finishing the Christmas Shopping a New the Old Way

As I started to make another batch of fudge I paused to think that at this point I have probably made more candy than we need. Still, here I am, making more. I enjoy making it and these sweets are the ones that both family and friends ask for over the holidays. While we can get by with fewer gifts this year it just wouldn't feel like Christmas without those special recipes that bring back Christmases past, the good tastes and smells, the memories of those wonderful times and the special people we share in common.
And then, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that maybe I do have my Christmas shopping done. I just need to package the candy I am making and give it as gifts. After all, that's what my aunt and I used to do. Though she lived alone, Aunt Hen would make batch after batch of Christmas cookies and candy every Christmas. She wrote out lists of recipes she wanted to try, noting the cookbook they could be found in and the page number, on a white tablet she kept by her chair at the dining room table.
During December Aunt Hen would bake several evenings a week from her list. Often I would run up to her house to help with her baking or to try a recipe of my own. When the recipes were completed we would taste them and then pack them into large brightly colored Christmas tins, nestling our treats between layers of waxed paper. When folks stopped by or when we were going out to see a neighbor or friend we would put together an assortment of holiday goodies on a pretty plate and present them as a gift.

A Special Touch

With that in mind I did something a bit different with the pan of fudge I was making. After the fudge had been stirred, poured in a pan and cooled slightly, instead of cutting it into squares I took several metal cookie cutters and pressed them into the still soft fudge. Then, after the fudge had set, I peeled the fudge pieces away from the outside of the cookie cutters and removed the fudge filled cookie cutters to a separate platter. I finished the top by melting dark chocolate morsels in the microwave, stirring until smooth and then spreading the melted chocolate over the fudge to the edges of the cookie cutter, filling in the area until the surface of the chocolate was level.

Once filled I put the shapes in a cool spot to set. When the chocolate was firm I put the cookie-cutter-bound fudge shapes into decorative bags and tied them with ribbons. The result was several small gifts from a single pan of fudge plus I had plenty of bits left over for tasting. These scraps could have been rolled into balls and dipped in chocolate to make fudge truffles but I elected to set them out as tastes for my family instead and they quickly disappeared. Maybe next time.
I also put together bags of Blistering Peanut Brittle and Kentucky Bourbon Balls. Each bag makes a nice gift on its own or several small bags can be gathered into a basket to offer a sampler of holiday candies.

Here's wishing you the cozy joys of a white Christmas!

Blistering Peanut Brittle

The snow continues…It filled up all of the crevices in my backyard last night and has continued to fall throughout the day. The new snow is wet and heavy and still. There is that snowy hush in the atmosphere since the wind has subsided. Now the snow is blanketing the rooftops and resting in the evergreens. It is beautiful!

Even so, my family is beginning to react to the isolation. They are beginning to feel housebound. What’s more, with Christmas only a few days away, they are concerned that we will not be ready.

I’m not really worried. I know everything will be just fine. Christmas happens. Like birth, once Advent begins Christmas is an inevitable blessing that will take hold of us with overwhelming wonder whether we are ready for it or not. No matter the state of human affairs, Christmas comes! In fact, this might be the best Christmas ever because it won't be quite like any that we have known before, because we are so obviously not in control this time.

While I am waiting in my warm kitchen, counting my blessings, I hear my husband echo the weatherman, “Four more inches possible? Ahhhhhhhh!” It isn’t a pleasant exclamation. I am wondering what I can do. How can I work a little kitchen magic?

An idea hits me as I look through a stack of old recipe clippings, matching the list of ingredients to what I have on hand. I smile as I think to myself, "It's time to turn up the heat!" And I have found just the recipe to do it - Blistering Brittle.

This recipe is found on a yellowed piece of newsprint. It is simple and appealing though I have never made it before. It is basically a Peanut Brittle recipe, one of my husband’s favorite candies, but it has a twist. It coats the peanuts with a blend of Tabasco sauce and allspice before stirring them into the candy. What’s more I really like the fact that it is made in the microwave.

This Peanut Brittle turned out great! Crisp (though it can get a bit soggy when dropped in the snow), it is a perfect brittle and it packs a little surprise. So if you want to get someone's attention or add a little spark of interest to a classic holiday treat, turn up the heat and give this recipe a try.

Blistering Peanut Brittle

1 1/2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1 1/4 cups peanuts
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

Lightly coat a large baking sheet with cooking spray. Set aside so it is ready to use.

Combine Tabasco sauce and allspice in a small bowl. Add peanuts and toss to coat thoroughly. Set aside.

Combine sugar and corn syrup (I didn't have enough light corn syrup so I used some dark corn syrup too. It worked fine) in a 2-quart microwavable bowl. Microwave on high for 4 minutes.

Stir thoroughly. Add peanuts and stir again. Microwave on high for another 5 minutes.

Add butter and vanilla. Blend. Microwave for another 30 to 60 seconds.

Remove bowl from microwave. Gently stir in the baking soda until it foams and is well combined.

Pour the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet.

As the mixture cools on the baking sheet, stretch it by pulling the candy with two forks to make it cover a larger area of the pan. This will make the brittle thinner and crisper.

When cold, break into pieces.

Share the heat with family and friends! Enjoy!

Bourbon Chocolate Cake

It is still snowing at my house. Tiny icy little flakes are whipping around on the wind this afternoon. They skitter across the road in waves and look like a misty fog rising from dry ice as they weave and swirl in active patterns on the pavement. From my window I can see intermittent streams of snowflakes blown from the roof across the street. There the snowflakes have settled less like a blanket and more like powdered frosting resting on the tiered tiles and nestling in thick lines along the gables. You can't say it doesn't look like Christmas around here this year!

Before the snow began I found a great Bundt pan made by Wilton. It's shape was described as a bell on the shelf tag. I thought it would be perfect for a holiday dessert. In fact I had one particular dessert in mind when I splurged and bought it for myself with a 40% off coupon at a local craft store. I had seen a beautiful Chocolate Bourbon Cake at Simply Recipes just days before and I really wanted to try it. The post there credited Melissa Clark of the New York Times and her article "When Temperance Isn't in the Cards" as the source of the recipe. For someone who likes to cook with Bourbon as much as I do it seemed like the perfect festive holiday cake to share with friends.

With a new pan and a new recipe I lit a candle, turned on my Christmas playlist and dedicated the afternoon to baking. The recipe came together seamlessly and while the cake was baking I worked on finishing my long planned Kentucky Bourbon Balls.

I tested the cake at 1 hour and 10 minutes as directed but left it in an extra 5 to 10 minutes before it tested done from my oven. I removed the cake from the pan immediately and it came out perfectly. The detail from the pan was quite pretty.

The event where I had planned to serve this beautiful cake ended up being canceled because of the snow last Sunday. Even so I found a few willing tasters to gather at my house that evening. Just before serving I dusted the cake with powdered sugar sifted through a tea strainer. The powdered sugar settled along the ridges from the cake pan like snow dusting the tiles on the rooftops outside my window. The effect was simple and enchanting.

The cake itself was even better. Moist and dark the cake tasted rich and delicious. The flavor of the chocolate, espresso and bourbon balanced each other well composing a warmly spirited blend of holiday notes. Each bite was a feast of flavors on its own making it a dessert to be savored slowly, accompanied by a bold cup of hot coffee.

Bourbon Chocolate Cake
from The New York Times, December 3, 2008, by Melissa Clark

I cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups flour
5 ounces unsweetened dark chocolate
¼ cup instant espresso powder
2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup bourbon whiskey + ¼ cup or so for sprinkling
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ cup confectioners’ sugar, for dusting

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Grease and flour a 10-cup-capacity Bundt pan.

Melt the chocolate in the microwave or double boiler. Set aside to cool.

Put the expresso powder and cocoa powder in a large (2 cup or larger) measuring cup. Add enough boiling water to make the contents measure 1 cup. Stir until the powders dissolve. Add 1 cup of bourbon and the salt. Set aside to cool.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the sugar, beating until well combined. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla extract, baking soda and melted chocolate, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally with a rubber spatula.

On low speed, beat in 1/3 of the bourbon-espresso mixture. When combined add one cup of flour beating just until combined. Continue adding another third of the bourbon-espresso mixture, the second cup of flour, and then the remainder of the liquid until the batter is smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan and bake at 325 degrees for approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes or until the cake tests done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Invert the cake on a serving platter. Sprinkle with remaining ¼ cup or so of bourbon while the cake is still warm.

Allow cake to cool and dust with confectioners’ sugar just before serving.

Note: I'm not sure it would improve the cake but next time I think I will soak 1/2 cup of fresh pecan halves in bourbon, then add the nuts to the batter just before pouring it into the pan. They might make a nice occasional counterpoint to the melt in your mouth texture of the cake itself.

Happy Holidays!

Penguins in the Snow

Earlier this month Mari, at Once Upon a Plate, posted about Olive Penguins. They were amazingly cute! When I saw them I knew that I would have to try making them during the holiday season.

Yesterday it snowed again. The roads looked slushy and I planned to stay inside and try some new recipes. It seemed like a great time to put together some penguins.

They were simple to make though they took a while. What's more they were too cute, exploring the snow on my back deck.

If you'd like to try making them too, here's how:

Drain one can of extra large and one can of small pitted black olives.

Make a vertical slice in the extra large olives from the criss-cross at the top to the hole at the bottom.

Fill each extra large olive with cream cheese. I cut a block of cream cheese into rectangular chunks that looked to be about the right size. Then I opened the slice and stuffed in the cream cheese piece smoothing a 1/4 -1/2 inch wide line of cream cheese between the two sides of the slice. When the olives are stuffed refrigerate them until you are ready to assemble the penguins.

Peel a carrot and cut it in 1/4 inch thick slices. Cut a small pie shaped wedge from each slice and set them to the side.

Gather the small olives, the stuffed olives, the carrot pieces and some round toothpicks. Pierce a small olive sideways with a toothpick. Push the toothpick through and thread one of the cream cheese stuffed olives lengthwise beneath it. then push the bottom of the toothpick into the center of a carrot slice, lining up the opening where the wedge was cut away with the stripe of cream cheese above.

Set the stack upright balancing on the carrot slice. Position the small olive so that the hole faces forward in line with the cream cheese slice and place a small carrot wedge in the hole to form a beak.

If desired, take a fresh chive and slit it in two lengthwise. Wrap one piece around the penguin's "neck" and arrange it like a scarf. Trim away any excess. Arrange penguins on a plate to serve as appetizers or use as a garnish for other dishes.

Smile and enjoy!

Kentucky Bourbon Balls

Today I finished the Bourbon Balls I promised many months ago. They were a long time coming. I put off making them and then never found the recipe I was looking for, the one I tried some years ago that made a creamy centered Bourbon Ball like the ones from Rebecca Ruth Candies.

I did find a recipe for chocolate dipped Bourbon Balls filled with crunchy pecan bits. It came from "The Bourbon Book," a book I bought in Bardstown, Kentucky many years ago. I made them and, though they are quite delicious, they failed to satisfy as they were not quite what I was looking for. Finally I gave up looking through my files and cookbooks for that one particular recipe I remembered and began to search for something similar on-line.

At last I turned up a recipe that sounded right. At Chowhound I found a recipe for Kentucky Style (Rebecca Ruth) Bourbon Balls. Knowing the writer was satisfied with this recipe for that same luscious Kentucky confection that I craved, I gave it a try. The result was just the thing I was looking for: butter soft, sweet and creamy with a distinct bourbon bite. Enrobed in dark chocolate and topped with a fresh pecan half these Bourbon Ball were a perfect taste of home.

Kentucky Style Bourbon Balls
from Chowhound.chow.com

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
5 Tablespoons bourbon (Chowhound recommends Knob Creek brand)

Combine softened butter and powdered sugar until smooth.

Add bourbon and mix until incorporated.

Refrigerate the mixture for 1 hour.

Form the buttercream into 1 inch balls and place on waxed paper. Refrigerate until firm.

Transfer buttercream centers to a Ziploc freezer bag and freeze for several hours or overnight.

Dip in chocolate coating. (See Below)

Old Kentucky Bourbon Balls
adapted from "The Book of Bourbon", p325

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 lb confectioners' sugar
3 Tablespoons bourbon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup finely ground pecans

Combined softened butter and confectioners' sugar until smooth.

Add the bourbon and vanilla and mix until incorporated.

Add the nuts and mix thoroughly.

Roll the candy into 1-inch balls. Set in refrigerator until firm, then transfer to a Ziploc freezer bag and place in the freezer for a few hours or overnight.

Chocolate Coating
(for either center prepared above)

4 to 6 ounces semisweet chocolate
30 -50 whole pecan halves, for garnish

Place a toothpick in each bourbon ball, sticking the toothpick into the center.

Melt chocolate in a small bowl in the microwave or a double boiler. Mix and heat until smooth.

Working quickly, dip the bourbon ball centers into the chocolate one at a time. Tap the toothpick against the side of the bowl to shake off excess chocolate. Set the coated bourbon ball on waxed paper covering a baking sheet or pizza pan. With another toothpick push the bourbon ball gently from the toothpick and cover the spot where it was with a pecan half.

When all bourbon balls have been dipped allow them to rest until set. (To speed the process the pan of bourbon balls can be placed in the refrigerator.) When set, transfer the candies to a holiday tin or other storage container.

Gingerbread Biscotti

It snowed over the weekend. It wasn't a blizzard. It didn't bring the region to a grinding halt or leave us snowbound but, for a little while, magical white flakes fell and frequent gusts of wind caught them in a playful dance. People bundled up and stamped snow from their shoes as they came inside. The roads got slick and we had to drive home from church carefully. Along the way we saw two overturned vehicles on the side of the highway and passersby drove cautiously under the speed limit.

Yesterday schools were closed and it seemed like a good day to turn on some Christmas tunes and snuggle up beside a fire. It was also a good day to turn on the oven and do some holiday baking. I checked my ingredients carefully since I didn't want to have to go out to buy more and canceled my plans for the day including my usual stop by the coffee shop.

At this time of year I have to admit I'll miss that stop at Starbucks. It's not about the coffee really. I can make fine coffee at home. The thing I'll miss is the seasonal Gingerbread Biscotti. I have adored Starbucks' Gingerbread Biscotti for years and look forward to having it with my coffee during December. I love to dip it into a cup of Christmas Blend or an Extra Hot Toffee Nut Latte, bite back to the crunchy part and let the warm saturated cookie dissolve in my mouth leaving a tingly note of holiday spice on my tongue.

Since I wasn't going to leave the house if I didn't have to yesterday I decided it was time to make my own. In fact, ever since I discovered Gingerbread Biscotti I have been thinking about it. I have made other flavors of biscotti before, so the cookie itself is not a new challenge, it's just that I could never settle on the best approach to approximate the flavor and texture of the ones I have come to like so well.

Yesterday, as I looked out the window at a clear blue sky and the sunlight reflecting brightly off the snow, I felt ready. I settled on a recipe I had clipped from Recipe Goldmine, increased the amount of spices adding a few more of my favorites, decreased the candied ginger (since I had little on hand after making several Old-Fashioned Gingerbread cakes recently) and decorated with just a drizzle of white chocolate.

The result on my first try was much better than expected, in fact they were almost exactly what I hoped for in texture and flavor. Next time I think I will add a little more candied ginger and substitute macadamia nuts for the almonds. I might also add a little more ground black and ancho chile pepper, but that’s just me. The recipe is well worth making as it is.

Gingerbread Biscotti
adapted from www.recipegoldmine.com

1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 cup molasses
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground ancho chile powder
2 Tablespoons minced candied ginger
1 cup slivered almonds
white chocolate for drizzling

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat together butter and sugar in a large mixing bowl until smooth and fluffy.

Add the eggs. When combined, blend in the molasses.

Mix in the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper and chile powder until incorporated.

Fold in the candied ginger and nuts.

Divide the dough in half and turn onto a lightly greased baking sheet. With greased hands, shape each half into a log approximately 3 or 4 inches wide and 1 inch high. Make sure the logs are at least 2 inches apart on the baking sheet.

Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven.

Reduce heat to 300 degrees.

Cool Biscotti for 10 minutes then remove them from the pan and place them on a cutting board.

Carefully cut each log into 1/2 inch slices. Place the slices back on the baking sheet, cut side down.

Place the baking sheet back in the oven and bake for 10 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven, turn the biscotti over and bake for an additional 10 minutes on the other side.

Remove from oven and let cool.

When the cookies are cool, melt 1/4 cup or so of white chocolate. When the chocolate is smooth place it in a ziploc sandwich bag and seal the bag shut. Squeeze the chocolate into a lower corner and snip 1/8 - 1/4 inch from the corner of the bag. Squeeze the chocolate out onto the cookies in a zigzag motion for decoration.


Cauliflower Pakoras with Cilantro Mint Sauce

I think that I would have to say cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables. While I tend to cook broccoli more often because of its bright color and contrast, cauliflower seems to have so much more potential. When roasted it has a delicious nutty flavor. In a stir fry it lends a neutral backdrop to other colors and flavors. Steamed in one large head it makes a beautiful base for sauces. Raw it adds texture in salads and can even pose as fried rice in this temptingly light raw dish.

A couple of weeks ago I ran across another mouth watering recipe for cauliflower. In the November issue of Sunset magazine there was a page about quick appetizers and a tempting photo of Cauliflower Panko Pakoras with Cilantro Mint Dipping Sauce. It looked like tempura vegetables but instead of tempura sauce it was served with a brilliantly festive green masala sauce.

It looked gorgeous and as I read further I found that the cauliflower pieces were baked, not fried. That sold me. I had to try it.

Though this recipe calls for a long list of ingredients, it is quite easy to make. Just dip and dredge cauliflower florets and place them in the oven on an oiled baking sheet. While they are baking mix the sauce in the food processor. The result is a delicious plate of appetizers that are perfect for a holiday gathering.

Cauliflower Panko Pakoras
from Sunset magazine

1/2 cup flour
1 1/2 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs), divided
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup club soda
2 large egg whites, lightly beaten
24 oz. cauliflower florets, (approximately two bags prepackaged or two heads)
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

Mix flour, 1/2 cup panko, garam masala, baking soda, salt, cumin, turmeric, cayenne and black pepper in a large mixing bowl until well combined.

Add lemon juice, club soda and egg whites to the dry mixture, whisking just until combined.

Dip florets into the mixture one at a time, roll each in additional panko crumbs and set on an oiled baking sheet. (They will probably fill two baking sheets.)

Bake until browned and crispy, approximately 20 minutes.

Meanwhile prepare Cilantro Mint Dipping Sauce.

Serve with the dipping sauce.

Cilantro Mint Dipping Sauce
from Sunset magazine

I serrano chile, stemmed
2 cups cilantro leaves
12 large fresh mint leaves
2 Tablespoons water
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt

Place chile, cilantro leaves and mint leaves in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until uniform. Add water, vegetable oil, lemon juice and salt. Blend until smooth.

Note: When I made these the second time I thought it would be fun to try using different vegetables. I used sweet potato slices, acorn squash slices and carrots in addition to cauliflower. Everything turned out to be tender and delicious, not to mention lovely, especially when paired with the dipping sauce.


Old-Fashioned Gingerbread

One of my favorite flavors of the holiday season is gingerbread. I love its moist crumb and dark spiciness. Warm from the oven, dusted with powdered sugar and glazed or topped with sweetened whipped cream it can't help but hint of holiday magic. The spicy fragrance reminds me of warm hours spent in the kitchen baking for family and friends. Each mouthful lingers like a memory and the dense texture has a palpable old world charm.

Over the years I have looked for a perfect gingerbread recipe. I have one or two that I like but either has room for improvement in my book, either in the blend of spices, the texture or the ease of preparation. So, when I saw Ina Garten bake Old Fashioned Gingerbread while watching the food network I knew I wanted to give her recipe a try.

Despite my aversion to raisins, I was feeling adventurous and followed her recipe carefully. The recipe calls for white raisins, which are often plumper than dark ones, and are somewhat more to my liking. What's more, the recipe calls for the raisins to be soaked in rum and that seemed like an intriguing addition to an ordinary gingerbread cake. The recipe also calls for candied ginger and I had a bag on hand that I had picked up at a local Asian market.

This gingerbread turned out great. I extended the baking time by about ten minutes before it tested done. The result was perhaps a little dry but still quite delicious. I shared it with friends and it got good reviews. The rum soaked raisins did add an exotic flavor that many people liked. I agreed, and yet the texture sort of bothered me. I was reminded that I really don't care for raisins in cakes, even when they have a nice flavor, so I decided to modify the recipe and try again.

On my second try I consulted a few other recipes I have used before and made quite a few modifications. I increased the amount of finely chopped candied ginger and used part whole wheat flour instead of just white. As I often do in recipes I doubled the spices for a deeper flavor and I added cocoa powder and a pinch of ground chili powder to the blend. I was also careful not to let the cake overbake.

The result was a delicious dark, spicy gingerbread. This is a comfort food in my book. Each spicy mouthful, hints of festive flavors from holidays past and its moist dense texture is packed with old-fashioned appeal. To me it is a perfect ending to a casual holiday meal and is even better served beside a crackling fire.

Old-Fashioned Gingerbread

1 stick unsalted butter
1 cup unsulphured molasses
1 cup sour cream
1 Tablespoon orange zest
1 1/3 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
3 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground ancho chile powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup minced dried crystallized ginger
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 Tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line an 8 inch square baking pan with parchment paper. Grease and flour the pan.

In a small saucepan, bring butter and molasses to a boil over medium heat. Pour the mixture into the bowl of an electric mixer and let cool for five minutes.

Add the sour cream and orange zest to the butter and molasses and mix until combined.

Mix together the flours, baking soda, cocoa powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, chile powder and salt by sifting or stirring. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the molasses mixture just until incorporated.

Stir in the crystallized ginger.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

Cool the cake on a wire rack. Remove from pan.

Glaze, if desired, by mixing together the confectioners' sugar and orange juice until thoroughly combined and then drizzling it over the cake, letting the glaze drip down the sides. Or simply serve the gingerbread warm and topped with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.