30 December 2011

Peppermint Dream Meringue Cookies


The Christmas Season

Today is the sixth day of Christmas. Though many folks have been celebrating Christmas since the day after Thanksgiving, according to tradition we are only half way through the real season of Christmas. Despite pre-Christmas advertising campaign countdowns to the contrary, the twelve days of Christmas actually begins on Christmas Day and continues through the celebration of Twelfth Night on January 5, until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 begins a new season.

Though we are truly only in the middle of the Christmas season a long trail of broken or discarded candy canes have already made their way into my kitchen. Candy Canes seem to have become more of a decoration to tie onto packages than a seasonal treat that anyone actually eats. Or maybe that’s just my family. Instead of being consumed they collect in a sad pile in my kitchen while my family’s traditions of thrift inspire guilty feelings whenever I consider tossing them in the trash.

Repurposing Candy Canes

That’s why I saved the recipe for White Christmas Dream Drops from the December issue of Sunset magazine. This year I am recycling those candy canes in a pretty meringue cookie. Reading through it I had to smile. It is based on the same basic recipe and technique as my mother’s Chocolate Chip Meringue Cookies, a recipe that makes a relatively soft centered meringue that is often hollow inside. I have seldom seen it anywhere else and here it is again, substituting bits of crushed peppermint candy for the nuts, white chips for the chocolate and adding a few minutes in the oven once it is turned off to set the meringue with a little added crunch.

These delightful cookies are gluten free, easy to make, low in fat and require only a few ingredients. They are a great way to use up leftover candy canes and are a good choice for celebrations late in the Christmas season and beyond, when you want a bite of something sweet but without the weight of butter-rich cakes and cookies. These cookies are instead a light and fresh way to enjoy the tastes of the season.



Peppermint Dream Meringue Cookies
from the December 2011 issue of Sunset

2 egg whites, at room temperature
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
¾ cup sugar
6 ounces white chocolate chips (about 1 cup)
1/3 cup plus 1½ Tablespoons coarsely crushed peppermint candy

Preheat oven to 250F.

With an electric mixer beat together egg whites and cream of tartar just until soft peaks form. Add salt and vanilla. Continue beating at high speed as you add the sugar one Tablespoon at a time, allowing 10 seconds or so between additions. (Very stiff peaks should form). Fold in chips and 1/3 cup peppermint candy.

Cover two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Drop meringue by Tablespoonfuls onto the parchment paper. Sprinkle cookies with remaining 1½ Tablespoons of peppermint candy.

Bake at 250 degrees for about 30 – 35 minutes or until cookies are set and dry to the touch but still pale. Turn the oven off, prop open the oven door and allow the cookies to stand in the oven another 10 minutes. Remove pans from oven and allow cookies to cool on the pan.

Notes: I drop these cookies on the parchment paper using two spoons, one to scoop up the desired amount and the back of the other to push the batter onto the parchment. These could also be made, and might look more uniform, if the cookies were formed using a gallon sized Ziploc bag. To try this, simply scoop the meringue into the bag, seal it, then cut a 1-inch opening across a lower corner of the bag. Use it like a pastry bag to pipe meringue onto the parchment paper in Tablespoon-sized dollops.

These cookies are extra pretty dipped in or drizzled with dark chocolate for contrast. To do this dip the lower half of each cooled cookie in melted chocolate allowing the excess to drip back into the pan before placing the dipped cookie on a parchment (or wax paper) lined cookie sheet to set. When the cookie sheet is full place it in the refrigerator for a few minutes until the chocolate is firm.

Or, place the melted chocolate in a small Ziploc freezer bag and snip ¼ inch from a lower corner of the bag. Drizzle the chocolate over each cookie. Place cookies in the refrigerator until the chocolate is firm.

This meringue could also be piped into heart shaped cookies like Valentine Meringue Cookies. To do this I would suggest chopping the white chips before adding them to the meringue so they will be easier to pipe.

Enjoy!

21 December 2011

Hazelnut Truffle Cookies


These really are some of the best cookies ever. I wouldn’t call them Christmas cookies. Like Chocolate Chip cookies, they aren’t all that pretty and adding extra steps or decorations does little to enhance their appeal. That’s not to say they can’t be adapted, adding nuts or a ½ teaspoon of sea salt or, as I’ve done here, some crushed Hazelnut Praline like that used in the recipe for Chocolate Hazelnut Cheesecake Spread. It’s just that they don’t need it and once you taste them you won’t want to limit their usefulness to a single season.

So, what’s the appeal? In a word, chocolate. Seasonless and satisfying, these cookies are chocolate through and through. They ably round out an assortment of cookies that are brightly decorated and fragrant with spice, adding their own silky deep tone like a bass grounding those sparkly sopranos in the Christmas choir. While they seldom carry the melody of the season those deep tones fill out the sound and warm the soul.



Hazelnut Truffle Cookies
adapted slightly from Alanna's Gourmet Mocha Cookies

13 ounces chocolate chips
1 stick butter
4 eggs
1½ cups sugar
1½ Tablespoon espresso powder
1 Tablespoon vanilla
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup Hazelnut Praline bits (recipe below)*

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small (2 qt.) saucepan, melt the 13 ounces of chocolate with the butter over very low heat, stirring often. When smooth, remove from heat and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and coffee granules until thick and pale. Fold in the vanilla and warm melted chocolate mixture. Fold in the flour mixture. Gently stir in the crushed Hazelnut Praline (or other add-in of your choice), if desired.

Let the batter stand for 15 minutes.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drop dough by Tablespoonfuls (I use a 1¼-inch cookie scoop to portion the dough) onto the parchment, leaving several inches between cookies for spreading, around 12 cookies per sheet.

Bake 8 to 10 minutes at 350 degrees until puffed and shiny on top. Do not overbake. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

* Note: ½ to 1½ cups of other add-ins (crushed Heath bars, dark chocolate chips, mini chocolate chips, toffee bits, or toasted nuts for example) can be substituted for the Hazelnut Praline Bits.


Hazelnut Praline Bits

1 Tablespoon coffee liqueur
¼ teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon espresso powder
½ cup hazelnuts, chopped and lightly toasted
6 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons water
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt

Lightly oil or butter a 12-inch square of aluminum foil. Set aside.

In a small bowl mix together the coffee liqueur, ginger and espresso powder. Microwave on high for 15 seconds and stir to dissolve the espresso powder. Stir in the hazelnuts, mixing until well coated. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, stir together the sugar and water. Cook over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture begins to turns a light golden color (approximately 4 minutes).

Stir in the hazelnuts and cook until coated and golden brown, (approximately 1 minute).

Remove from heat and immediately pour onto the prepared foil, sprinkling the sea salt evenly over the candy and spreading the candy with a spoon as thinly as possible.

Let set until completely cool.

Break into pieces. Place in a food processor and process until the biggest pieces are small bits.

Enjoy!

19 December 2011

Scandinavian Almond Cookies


The spirit of hospitality that comes with the Christmas season is truly a thing of beauty. Everyone seems inspired to make an extra effort to offer others something out of the ordinary. Twinkling lights greet us from the darkness, festive decorations dress homes and offices, and holiday treats are thoughtfully prepared to tempt us at every turn.

Many recipes for holiday cookies include a few extra steps that make them special. Some need time to chill the dough. Others need to be rolled and cut or shaped. Many call for added decorations and require waiting between steps. All of these extra steps have value but they can also add up to lots of time and extra effort.

Of course cookies don’t have to take lots of extra work to be special. These Scandanavian Almond Cookies, for example, have a neatly trimmed shape and are finished with icing and sliced almonds. Still they are relatively easy to prepare. Only four pieces of dough need to be roughly shaped. Nuts are scattered over each before baking. While the cookies are still warm they are cut and once cooled they are drizzled with icing while they are still nestled neatly together. Then, given a little time to set, they are ready to separate and share.



Scandanavian Almond Cookies
from my Cookie Swap files

1¾ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
½ teaspoon almond extract
milk
½ cup sliced almonds

1 cup powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon almond extract
milk (3-4 teaspoons)

Makes about 4 dozen.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt until well combined. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer until soft and smooth. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the egg and ½ teaspoon almond extract, beating until well combined. Add the flour mixture and continue mixing just until combined.

Divide the dough into four equal parts. Form each into a 12-inch log. Place 2 logs 4 to 5 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten each log until 3 inches wide. Repeat with remaining portions of dough.

Brush the dough with milk. Scatter the almonds evenly over the tops.

Bake at 325 degrees, 12 to 15 minutes or until the edges begin to lightly brown.

Remove from oven. While still warm, cut each section crosswise into 1-inch strips, straight or on the diagonal. (A pizza cutter works well for this step.)

Cool cookies on a wire rack.

To make the Almond Icing:

Stir together the powdered sugar, ¼ teaspoon almond extract and enough milk (approximately 3-4 teaspoons) to make icing with a drizzling consistency.

Drizzle icing randomly over the cool cookies. Allow to set before storing.

Enjoy!

13 December 2011

Jeweled Crab and Avocado Salad


Pomegranates are the most festive of fruits. Their beautiful garnet skin is the very color of Christmas cheer. Not only is the color of a pomegranate regal but the shape is that of a plump orb topped with a jaunty little crown, suggesting royalty.

Like the best jewelry boxes, the fine exterior of a pomegranate hints at, but pales when compared to, the beauty of the jewels that lie within. The pomegranate's bright skin is packed full of even brighter arils; the crunchy edible seeds enrobed in translucent bits of juicy crimson fruit. These abundant little fruits shine with festive color and are perfect for dressing up holiday dishes, both sweet and savory.

Here I have used jewel-like pomegranate arils to embellish a composed salad. This combination of crab meat and avocado with a simple dressing relies heavily on the quality of the crabmeat and the perfect ripeness of the avocado so choose your ingredients with care. The finished salad can be served as a first course for dinner or as festive party fare.



Jeweled Crab and Avocado Salad

Salad

½ avocado, sliced
4 oz crab meat, well drained
pomegranate seeds

Dressing

1 Tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 Tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Line a 7-ounce ramekin with plastic wrap.

Arrange the sliced avocado to line the bottom of the dish overlapping the pieces so that the dish is evenly lined.

Drain the crab meat, pressing excess liquid from the meat gently using the lid of the can or a white paper towel.

Arrange the crab meat on top of the advocado. Turn the ends of the plastic wrap over the crab meat and press it firmly into the ramekin. Set the ramekin in the refrigerator until ready to use.

Prepare the dressing by whisking together the pomegranate molasses, vinegar, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste.

Remove the avocado crab mold from the refrigerator. Pull the plastic wrap open and away from the crab. Unmold the salad onto a small serving plate. Carefully remove the plastic wrap from the salad.

Scatter the salad and plate with pomegranate seeds.

Drizzle with Pomegranate Dressing.

Serve with crackers or baguette slices.

Note: To make Pomegranate Molasses stir together 1 cup of pomegranate juice and 2 Tablespoons of honey or sugar in a small saucepan. Simmer the mixture until it is reduced to between ¼ and ½ cup, or approximately 30 minutes.

Enjoy!

08 December 2011

Scrumptious Soft Peanut Brittle


A tile of golden brittle studded with peanuts makes a tempting addition to any assortment of holiday treats. As it cracks into soft shards when you break off a piece, intrigue is added to the equation. When your first bite buckles in a melting soft crunch like the heart of a Butterfinger, you’re hooked. Any peanut candy fan will beg for more of this scrumptious Soft Peanut Brittle.

This recipe comes from a post at Wives with Knives that was first published a couple of years ago. When I saw it my interest was piqued. A recipe that promises to so closely resemble my family’s favorite candy bar needs to be tried. When I finally made it some weeks ago it was a huge hit. Now they are asking for the recipe...



Soft Peanut Brittle
From Wives with Knives

2 cups creamy peanut butter
1½ cups granulated sugar
1½ cups light corn syrup
¼ cup water plus 2 teaspoons, divided use
2 Tablespoons butter
2 cups peanuts, raw or roasted
1 teaspooon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla

Generously butter a large rimmed cookie sheet (I used a heavy 11” x 17” inch nonstick baking sheet).

Dissolve baking soda in the teaspoons of water. Set aside.

In the top of a double boiler heat the peanut butter over simmering water until melted, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan combine the sugar, corn syrup and ¼ cup water. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan with the tip of the thermometer resting near but not touching the bottom of the pan.


Cook the syrup mixture over high heat until it reaches 275 degrees. Lower the heat to medium and add the butter. Stir until melted.

Add peanuts. Continue cooking, stirring continuously for about five more minutes, until the syrup begins to turn brown and the thermometer reads 300 degrees.

Remove from heat. Add the baking soda solution you have set aside and the vanilla.

Working quickly and carefully, fold in the softened peanut butter, stirring gently. Then pour the candy mixture onto the prepared baking sheet. Working quickly, spread it as thin as possible.

Once cool, break the brittle into large tiles or bite sized pieces. Package some for gift giving and share the rest. It makes quite a bit but it won't last long.

Enjoy!

01 December 2011

Hazelnut Topped Chevre Cheesecake


Cheesecake is a versatile creation. The cake itself is fairly basic and made from eggs, soft cheese, something sweet like sugar or honey, sometimes a little liquid like cream or lemon juice and maybe a little flour.

The crust is even more adaptable. Use graham crackers or cookies, nuts or crumbs. Mixed with a little butter and maybe a pinch of spice it is spread or pressed in the pan.

Add a topping, if you like. Here the choices approach infinity. Fruit, cream, nuts, chocolate or another layer of crumbs can be sprinkled, spread or drizzled across the top before or after the cake finishes baking. Or you can simple dust the top with powdered sugar just before serving.

It's this versatility that makes cheesecake such a delightful dessert to play with. You can shop for the choicest ingredients and they will be showcased beautifully by cheesecake's simplicity. Or you can clean out the kitchen, get inventive and come up with a delightful and very personal creation.

Here I used a variation on the topping from my favorite Bread Pudding, added some local hazelnuts I found lingering in the cupboard and used both to top a larger version of a chevre based cheesecake I discovered in February. The result was beautiful and well worth sharing.



Hazelnut Topped Chevre Cheesecake

3 cups fine gingersnap crumbs (I used 1 package TJ’s Triple Ginger Snaps ground in a food processor)
½ cup melted butter

16 ounces Chevre with Honey (or use another plain soft goat cheese and double the honey)
¼ cup honey
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 large eggs, separated
3 Tablespoons flour

Preheat oven to 350F.

To make the crust:
In a medium bowl, combine the ginger snap crumbs and melted butter. Press the crumb mixture into the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan using a straight sided Metric Wonder Cup or similar measuring cup. It works great for pressing the crumbs high up the sides of the pan. (Then again you could just use your fingers.)

To prepare the filling:
In a medium bowl, combine the goat cheese, honey, lemon juice and vanilla. Beat at medium speed with an electric mixer until smooth and well combined.

Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour and mix on low until incorporated.

In a smaller bowl, beat the egg whites with clean beaters until soft peaks form. (They should be firm but not dry.) Stir 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter. Add the remaining egg whites folding gently until they are incorporated.

Pour the batter into the ginger snap crust.

Bake at 350F for 40 minutes or until set. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Once cool the cheesecake can be covered and stored in the refrigerator until ready to serve, up to several days.


Hazelnut Topping

½ cup unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
6 Tablespoons whipping cream
½ teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of salt
1 cup toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped

In a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.

Add the brown sugar, whipping cream, five spice powder, vanilla and salt, whisking until well combined.

Simmer, whisking often, until thickened, approximately 3 minutes. Stir in the hazelnuts.

Cool until the mixture begins to thicken but is still easy to spread.

Pour over chilled cheesecake and spread to cover the top, allowing some to run down the sides if you like.

To serve:
Remove the cheesecake from the springform pan by running a knife along the outer edge and unlocking the side of the pan, pulling the pan away. Center the cheesecake on a serving platter.

Pour the Hazelnut Topping over the chilled cheesecake and spread to cover the top, allowing some to run down the sides if you like. Return the cheesecake to the refrigerator, if desired, covering it loosely until ready to serve.

Enjoy!

26 November 2011

Cashew Turkey Casserole


One of my favorite things about Thanksgiving dinner is the leftovers. That beautiful turkey that serves as a centerpiece to Thanksgiving dinner keeps on giving throughout the holiday weekend. After preparing a feast for our celebration it is a delight to anticipate the leftovers to be enjoyed with little additional investment.

I look forward to Turkey Sandwiches with Cranberry Relish accompanied by my choice of several favorite side dishes just waiting in my refrigerator. Even after sandwiches have worn out their welcome there are lots of easy dishes to prepare with the leftover turkey meat.

This casserole is an appealing example. My sister-in-law shared the recipe with me many years ago. It works equally well with chicken or turkey and has withstood the test of time even though it includes a few dated ingredients. The crunch of water chestnuts and chow mein noodles add interest to the more familiar ingredents while golden cashews provide a contrasting texture and rich flavor. It is a simple way to dress up Thanksgiving leftovers.



Cashew Turkey Casserole
from Pat's kitchen

2 cups diced cooked turkey or chicken
1 5-ounce can chow mein noodles
¾ cup chopped celery
½ cup sliced green onions
1 can cream of mushroom soup
½ to 1 cup cashew nuts
¾ cup turkey or chicken broth
1 can water chestnuts, chopped

Set aside ½ cup of the chow mein noodles. Combine remaining ingredients and spread the mixture in a 2-quart casserole. Sprinkle reserved noodles over top. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes.

Serves 4-6

Enjoy!

23 November 2011

Classic Pumpkin Pie


It's Thanksgiving tradition, plain and simple. Once a year I make a pie with a creamy russet filling. It is a relatively simple pie in terms of ingredients and preparation. It’s few ingredients are stirred together briefly and poured into a pie shell.

Because of its simplicity it is a good recipe to share with kitchen helpers on a busy day. Still there are times when I end up making it myself. On those occasions I take great care to garnish it with something pretty and to watch the crust carefully for a lovely golden shade of brown before removing it from the oven. It is a pretty complement to the colors and aromas of a traditional Thanksgiving feast.

When dinner is over and the pie is finally cut and served, I take just a sliver. It’s not that I don’t like the pie. I do. It’s just that on Thanksgiving there are so many other wonderful dishes served with the main course that I have little room left for dessert, no matter how fragrant or pretty it may be. Still my family would feel the feast was incomplete without that Pumpkin Pie on the serving board. Somehow its warm spicy fragrance and smooth texture offer a compelling sense of resolution to our holiday celebration.

May your celebrations be rich with satisfying flavors, happy memories and hearts filled with gratitude.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!



Pumpkin Pie
from the back of the Libby's pumpkin can

1 9-inch unbaked pie shell
¾ cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 large eggs
1 can (15 oz.) pumpkin
1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk

Preheat oven to 425F.

In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Stir in the pumpkin and spice mixture. Gradually stir in the evaporated milk until well combined.

Pour the mixture into the unbaked pie shell.

Bake the pie at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking 40-50 minutes more or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
When done, remove pie from the oven and cool on a wire rack for 2 hours.

Serve when cooled or refrigerate.

Note: 1¾ teaspoons pumpkin pie spice may be substituted for the cinnamon, ginger & cloves if desired.

Enjoy!

21 November 2011

Pumpkin Seed Brittle


Roasting Pumpkin Seeds

I have wanted to make this Pumpkin Seed Brittle for a long time. I could just picture it’s amber tiles of caramelized sugar, as translucent as glass. I could imagine the transformation of a little sugar and water cooked into a golden syrup coating the seeds and suspending them inside. In my thoughts those seeds from fall's most iconic fruit captured the essence of autumn.

So why has it taken so many seasons to make this simple candy? I have suffered a fundamental misunderstanding with the seeds themselves. I have read in the fall issues of magazines about the fun and wholesome pleasure of roasting pumpkin seeds and sharing them as snacks. I have read about their nutritional fortitude and was even aware of their status as an American Superfood. I had admired the beauty of their tear-shaped form freed from the pumpkin's internal goo. I just had never figured out how to toast them and eat them without harboring a secret fear that I would get a splinter in my tongue or esophagus.



A New Approach

While many people seem to have been roasting and enjoying pumpkin seeds for years I was never able to swallow more than a few. I would clean them, rinse them, toss them with oil and seasoning and pop them in the oven. Some time later they would come out of my oven having taken on the consistency of shoe leather or balsa wood.

This year I took a new approach. Instead of roasting my own seeds I began with a bag of Lightly Salted Organic Pumpkins Seeds from CB’s Nuts. They came in an assortment of holiday ingredients I received at a Whole Foods Thanksgiving Preview dinner. I was assured that these seeds were specially bred not to be too fibrous and were carefully roasted in small batches with only the lightest dusting of sea salt.

Not only were these pumpkin seeds just right for making my long-awaited Pumpkin Seed Brittle, they were perfect for snacking too. Toasted but still chewy these seeds fell shy of splintery while remaining optimal for slow paced enjoyment.



Pumpkin Seed Brittle

1 cup granulated cane sugar
½ cup water
½ cup pumpkin seeds

Generously grease a baking sheet and set aside.

Combine water and sugar in a heavy medium sized pan. Bring to a boil over medium heat stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. When the mixture boils stop stirring and continue to cook until the syrup turns a golden brown.

When syrup is golden, remove from heat. Quickly add pumpkin seeds, swirling the syrup to coat the seeds. Immediately pour mixture onto the well-greased baking sheet.

When the brittle is cool break into pieces. Store in an airtight container.

Enjoy!

20 November 2011

A Time of Abundance


A Time To Every Purpose

As the last of the brilliant leaves blow from the branches of the trees in our yard I am reminded of one of my favorite Bible verses:

Ecclesiastes 3:1 – To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

In my experience it applies to everything.

With food as with life there is a time to be steeped in tradition. There is a time when it is comforting and meaningful to draw sustenance from our roots, to remember where we come from through our senses of taste and smell.

While traditions have their season, there is also a time to reach out and open ourselves to our environment as we sample the new and interesting things we find there. Through exploration we find things to stimulate our thinking and delight our senses anew. We discover new connections that enrich our life and our table. They add new significance to the story our traditions tell.

These discoveries are like seeds that we bring back and mix into to our existing traditions. It’s not a matter of plowing up and overturning everything so that something new can supplant it. It’s more like bringing back the fragrant spices of another land to enrich the flavor of those traditions of old, helping them to remain interesting and palatable. Through the delight of discovery we allow what has been handed down to us to breathe with new life.



Abundance

In the west we are blessed by abundance. We have land in abundance and natural resources. We are wealthy by the world’s standards and can afford to be generous. We tend to aspire to live large on that abundance.

Not that abundance is a bad thing. Ask anyone who has gone without and they will firmly assure you that having plenty is better. My aunts and my dad grew up during the Great Depression and knew the difference. They kept everything I tried to discard in my youth, saying I might need it for something later. “Waste Not, Want Not” was the motto they lived by and they kept old styrofoam meat trays washed and neatly stacked, old wire coat hangers that were bent beyond recognition and clothing they had not worn, or fit into, in decades.

During the Depression they lived on a farm so they never went hungry but they did know what it meant to do without and to wish for the things they had enjoyed in a more prosperous time. Discarding what did not seem useful at the moment was hard for them. They would rather live with a stockpile of items not yet repurposed than to live with the regret of letting go of something they might later find that they could use.



A Different Perspective

Japanese history is also no stranger to depravation. An exhibit at the Portland Japanese Garden called "Mottainai: The Fabric of Life, Lessons in Frugality from Traditional Japan" is on display through November 27th. As the publicity explains "the exhibition demonstrates the remarkable ability of the Japanese to not only make do with the very little they had, but to make art with it."

Japanese tradition implores its people to find the beauty in simplicity and controlled quantities. This tradition values the iconic truth suggested by the detail of a singular treasure. A Japanese convention of décor is to remove all ornamentation from a setting except for those adornments on which they wish to focus the attention of their guests.

Meals are similar. Western food culture seems driven by the image of a horn of plenty, that Thanksgiving dinner motif of the overflowing cornucopia. Americans delight in all you can eat buffets, bountiful potlucks and sideboards overflowing with foods of every kind. Just watch an episode of “Paula’s Home Cooking” featuring celebrity chef Paula Deen. Her “Southern Thanksgiving Special” is a celebration of excess. A turkey is not enough but is better stuffed with a duck and a hen. Even a meal featuring this elaborate creation, not to mention sides, beverage and dessert, is not enough; mini cheeseburgers the size of my palm along with bacon wrapped pretzels are offered as appetizers.

To tell the truth, my table is not all that different. I may cringe at the thought of that Turducken served with Cheeseburger appetizers but my family celebrates Thanksgiving with huge abundance as well. We serve turkey with dressing, four vegetable dishes, cranberry relish, bread and a variety of pies, served a la mode if you like. It is the tradition I grew up with, and it wasn’t limited to Thanksgiving. If my aunt had guests at dinner any night of the week and even a single dish of the many she laid out on her table was emptied during the meal she would dither over it for hours. “What if they wanted a little more?” she’d say to herself. “Why didn’t I add a little extra?”



A Matter of Focus

Japanese customs, as I understand them, are different. Many meals focus on a simple aesthetic. They offer moderate portions featuring fresh natural ingredients served with rice. These meals are built around the unique attributes of the featured ingredient and its reflection of the season. Presentation is as important as taste as the meal seeks to engage all of the senses. Cooking is an art; from intricate bento boxes to elaborate kaiseki meals, featuring multiple courses of small carefully prepared dishes made with the freshest seasonal ingredients.

Stopping for matcha tea on a Spring afternoon in Himeji we were served tea in a traditional tea bowl along with a single sweet carefully constructed and arranged on a black laquer dish. Both hungry and thirsty when we arrived it was a revelation to experience the great satisfaction this small exquisitely prepared intermezzo provided. After a short break in the quiet contemplative atmosphere of the spare tea house, tasting tea and a small sweet, I felt utterly refreshed and ready to return to our itinerary.



Reflection and Study

Of course it isn’t only an eastern aesthetic that values careful reflection on preparation and moderation. One of my favorite quotes from the movie Kate and Leopold suggests the value placed on these virtues in the west some time ago. Leopold is a time traveler from the year 1876. Appalled by the quality of his meal, a frozen dinner heated and served in one course, he remarks, "Where I come from the meal is the result of reflection and study... It is said, without the culinary arts the crudeness of reality would be unbearable."

Charlie, brother to the hostess, in good humor offers, "We had a saying in the McKay house: You shake and shake the ketchup bottle; None will come and then a lot'll."

In a way, that quote describes the issue well. Perhaps it is all about the early 20th century and the toll taken on our collective psyche during those years of depravation. During the Great Depression none came, or very little. That era was followed by one of sacrifice to fuel a world war. What followed was a flood of unrivalled prosperity where "a lot" became common and "reflection and study" of those blessing became all too rare as a people once deprived eagerly indulged in that prosperity.




Reinvigorating Tradition

Once again, Thanksgiving is nearly here. As often happens around the holidays, I am feeling a little overwhelmed. Excitement builds over the family gathering and a celebration of our abundant blessings. I dive into the preparation with joy. There are moments, however, when I begin to feel like I am drowning.

On holidays it can be hard to find that balance between celebration and excess. How do we capture the joy and prevent this abundance from becoming a meaningless millstone around our necks? For my part I want to temper my traditions with reflection on moderation, generosity and a belief that, in all truth, less really can be more. It is a blessing to let go, to share, to travel light. We can move so much more freely when we release some of the burdens we tend to heap upon ourselves.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes speaks to that as well:

Ecclesiastes 3:6 - A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.

Maybe this year we will scale back our traditional celebration just a little, trimming away the excess that has lost its meaning and focusing on what we treasure most. I would love to step away from some of the quantity of our feast in favor of focusing on the depth and quality of the celebration.

What if we were to practice a time of casting away to make room for things that are truly most worthy of our attention? Think of what meals might be like if we adorned smaller plates with choice recipes that were more often the result of “reflection and study.” Focusing on an aesthetic of simplicity we might bring a new sense of joy and thankfulness to the table as we dwell on the essence of what we consume and the handprint of God’s careful provision in each mouthful we are blessed to enjoy.

15 November 2011

Banana Cake Squares with Vanilla Wafer Streusel


I have never been a huge fan of bananas. It's not that I dislike them. Occasionally I will even pick one up to eat for lunch or a snack. Bananas are good but in my view so many things are better. Give me the choice of a banana or a ripe peach or pear, even a small bunch of grapes and I will leave the banana behind every time.

My family marches to another beat. For years my family ate a basket of bananas every few days. I never needed to worry about bananas getting black sitting on my counter. I bought bananas every time I went to the market and rarely were any discarded.

But things change. My son is seldom home these days and my husband has not been keeping up. Lately my bananas turn spotted, then dark. Still I forget and buy too many fresh ones.

Fortunately I do like bananas in baked goods. I sometimes bake bananas into yeast bread and I enjoy Banana Nut Bread hot from the oven or toasted. Still, enough is enough. Tired of making the same old thing with my overripe bananas I decided to search out something new. Thoughts of Banana Bars with Cream Cheese Frosting led me along a circuitous recipe search that ended in my baking Banana Cake Squares topped with Vanilla Wafer Steusel and even a drizzle of Caramel Sauce. Along the way I am learning that I might like bananas more than I thought.



Banana Squares

Banana Cake

1 cup white sugar
1 cup mashed very ripe bananas (I used 3)
½ cup butter
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt

Streusel Topping

1 cup vanilla wafer crumbs
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ cup ground nutmeg
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup butter
1/3 to 1 cup of toasted nuts or toasted unsweetened coconut
         (I used about 1/3 cup macadamia nuts one time, coconut another)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 13 x 9 inch baking pan.

In a large bowl, mix the white sugar, bananas, ½ cup butter, eggs and vanilla with a spoon.

In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the flour mixture to the banana mixture, stirring until just combined. Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the vanilla wafer crumbs, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar and ¼ cup butter using a fork or your fingers. When the mixture is well combined and crumbly stir in the toasted nuts and/or coconut. Scatter the crumbs evenly across the cake batter.

Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 30 minutes or until the cake tests done. ( A toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean or the cake springs back when pressed lightly near the middle. ) Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.


Note: If you prefer, you can skip the streusel topping and dust cooled Baanana Squares with powdered sugar or ice with Cream Cheese Frosting. Another idea is to serve the Banana Squares with Caramel Sauce, either drizzling the sauce on a dessert plate before setting the Banana Square on top or topping the Banana Square itself with the Caramel Sauce.


Enjoy!

11 November 2011

Cornbread for a Crowd


I missed the email on Friday that asked me to bring seventy pieces of cornbread to the football dinner on Wednesday. Late Tuesday evening I got the word. Still..... no problem.

Jiffy Corn Muffin mix is surprisingly accommodating. It costs 50 cents a box. I’m not saying it’s particularly nutritious. I’m not even saying it’s wonderfully delicious. All I’m saying is it tastes good. I know it like family and, while it may have it’s flaws, it is still practical, available and can be dressed up to please on short notice.

I grew up with Jiffy. That little blue box always seemed to be tucked somewhere in my family’s kitchens. I remember a recipe in Aunt Hen’s handwriting for Fancy Corn Muffins that exchanged sour cream for the milk in Jiffy Corn Muffin mix. I found another recipe, from my cousin, in the Family Heritage Cookbook for a favorite Corn Casserole using a box of Jiffy.

For my purposes this week I combined the two, and changed them. Here’s cornbread that can be thrown together fast and inexpensively for a crowd. It bakes in fifteen minutes, two 9 X 13 pans at a time.



Fast and Easy Cornbread

3 eggs
½ cup sour cream
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup corn oil
2 Tablespoons honey
2 8-oz boxes corn muffin mix

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Lightly beat eggs. Whisk in sour cream, buttermilk, corn oil and honey. Blend in corn muffin mix.

Let batter sit 5 minutes.

Stir again and spread the batter in a 9 x 13 inch baking pan.

Bake at 400 degrees for 15 - 20 minutes.

Note: While the cornbread baked, I dug around on the Internet in an effort to assess the weight of this culinary transgression. That ingredient list on the side of the box is certainly nothing to brag about but while Jiffy has it’s share of detractors there also appear to be a great many fans who wouldn’t pass a holiday without a Corn Casserole that starts with a Jiffy cornbread mix. Other Internet fans mix Jiffy with Yellow Cake Mix for a soft sweet cornbread.

By the time the bread was finished baking I was feeling much better about the whole enterprise. I love to bake from scratch but I also have my fair share of those days when I remember a healthy appreciation for an economical box of Jiffy.

08 November 2011

Greek Feta Chicken


A Bookcase Full of Recipes

I have an entire bookcase full of cookbooks. It is always overflowing with some sitting on the floor propped up against the side. Having decided that my cookbook collection must remain limited to this space, I frequently find that I need to pick and choose, discarding perfectly wonderful cookbooks in favor of new favorites.

I love to read cookbooks, savoring the author's notes and admiring the pictures. I even cook from my cookbooks from time to time. Still I find the best source of recipes is friends and family that I spend time with and eat with regularly.


Finding the Best

This recipe is one that I was given by a dear friend many years ago. This versatile recipe was a favorite of hers. She turned to it often when cooking a quick dinner on the grill for unexpected guests or taking dinner to a friend in need. She first shared it with me on just such an occasion.

Far from plain this recipe is still casual and can be prepared quickly. Rice and a salad fill it out and make an easy meal. It can be cooked outdoors on the grill or inside under the broiler. It is good hot from the oven but is also delicious at room temperature. Leftovers are a perfect addition to a salad or sliced to make a sandwich. In each case the tangy feta cheese is a delightful counterpoint to the tender yogurt-marinated chicken, keeping things interesting.

I first tasted this recipe maybe twenty five years ago and not only do I still make it regularly, it is still one of my favorites. Like I said, no matter how many cookbooks I own or how many great recipes I find on the internet, the very best recipes are still the ones shared by a friend.



Greek Feta Chicken
from Anne's kitchen

1 cup plain lowfat yogurt
1 large garlic clove, minced
½ tsp dried oregano, crumbled
¼ tsp pepper
4-6 boneless skinless chicken breast halves
1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese, plain or with peppercorns

In a large bowl whisk together the yogurt, garlic, oregano and pepper.

Add chicken and turn to coat. Cover and let stand 30 minutes.

Preheat broiler. Line broiler pan w/ foil. Remove chicken from marinade and place smooth side down on prepared pan, reserving marinade in bowl.

Broil chicken 7-8 minutes. Turn chicken over. Brush with reserved marinade. Sprinkle with feta cheese and broil on a rack positioned 6-8 inches from the element until chicken is cooked through, about 6-8 minutes longer, or until the chicken breasts reach an internal temperature of 160 - 170 degrees.

These are good served hot or cold. They are also good cooked on the grill.

Enjoy!

03 November 2011

Spirited Southern Sweet Potato Bars


I love tradition. As autumn gathers I love the slight chill in the air, the dance of colorful leaves, the smell of logs in the fireplace and the crackle of friendly fires. These cues inspire my anticipation of traditional fall fare: hearty soups and stews, apples fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg, roasted squashes and root vegetables.

Sometimes though, what I love best about tradition is the opportunity to turn it upside down, or at least sideways. I enjoy rethinking traditions, looking for ways to make them new and to satisfy my own sense of good taste in the process.

Maybe that’s what attracted me to this recipe in the first place, one I cut from the newspaper many years ago. It gives a new twist to an age-old favorite: Pumpkin Bars. It employs sweet potatoes rather than pumpkin maintaining a similar texture but the potential of a richer color. For crunch it adds oats and a streusel topping. The twist comes from a splash of bourbon and a good sized pinch of ground red pepper. Both intrigued me, appealing strongly to my southern spirit.

This recipe still appeals to me today. It uses traditional fall ingredients and flavors in a slightly unusual combination. Pretty and appealing these bars are easy to like. It’s not until you slow down to savor a bite that you begin to consider the slight warmth contributed by the red pepper and the complexity of the flavor developed by the bourbon. Even then it’s just a whisper for those who are listening. Not a shout that threatens to topple expectations.



Spirited Southern Sweet Potato Bars
attributed to Quaker Oats

2 cups old-fashioned oats, uncooked
1½ cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground red pepper
1 cup butter, slightly softened
2/3 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cusp mashed, cooked sweet potato
2 eggs, slightly beaten
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 Tablespoons bourbon
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 13 x 9 inch baking pan.

In a medium bowl combine the oats and flour, mixing well. Remove 2/3 cup of the oat-flour mixture to a smaller bowl. Stir in the salt and ground red pepper. Set aside for the filling.

To the remaining oat-flour mixture add the butter, white sugar and vanilla.
Blend with an electric mixer until the mixture is crumbly. Remove 1 cup of the mixture and set aside for the topping. Press the remaining mixture evenly across the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove from oven.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl comine the sweet potato, eggs, brown sugar, bourbon and reserved 2/3 cup of the oat-flour mixture. Mix well. Spread the filling over the warm crust.

Add the toasted nuts to the reserved crumb mixture and sprinkle evenly over the sweet potato filling.

Bake at 375 degrees for 30 – 35 minutes or until the topping begins to brown. Cool on a wire rack. Cut into bars. Serve at room temperature.

Serving Note: To dress up these bars for a special dessert drizzle dessert dishes with Caramel Sauce and place a Sweet Potato Bar on top. More Caramel Sauce can be drizzled on top or served on the side. Top with Whipped Cream and garnish with a toasted pecan half if desired. While the bars are sweet enough on their own I found that the Caramel Sauce added a very appealing flavor note to these Spirited Southern Sweet Potato Bars.

Enjoy!

01 November 2011

Planning the Thanksgiving Menu


After four years of posting, My Own Sweet Thyme is brimming with delicious recipes. This year I wanted to collect some of my favorites in ways that could make seasonal planning easier. With Thanksgiving only a few short weeks away I have turned my attention to turkey and fall flavors and gathered some suggestions for Thanksgiving Dinner and the long holiday weekend it brings with it.

The suggestions here are not comprehensive. There are many more fall recipes that might catch your eye if you scan the photo sidebar of My Own Sweet Thyme or flip through the blog archive focusing on the months of October and November. You can also search for something in particular using the "Search" box at the top of the left sidebar.

My focus here is on favorite recipes I plan to cook that weekend, or at least would like to, and a few alternatives. There are still some recipes I will prepare that are not yet posted to My Own Sweet Thyme, things like Turkey Dressing, Plain Old Mashed Potatoes and more ideas for leftovers, to name a few. I hope to remedy that in time and will add them here as I do.

Meanwhile, take a look as you think about Thanksgiving. Hopefully you will find some inspiration; a photo that jogs your memory or a post that suggests a twist on a favorite recipe. Maybe you will even find something you would like to add to your Thanksgiving celebration this year.

And while we are on the subject of Thanksgiving, please know that I am thankful for each of you, my readers. I wish you a very blessed holiday season! May your celebrations be rich with satisfying flavors, happy memories and hearts filled with gratitude.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!


Appetizers

If you want to keep your guests from nibbling through the kitchen as you cook, set out one of these seasonal snacks to take the edge off of appetites until the main event calls you to the table.




Side Dishes

Thanksgiving side dishes are so much more than something bright to complement the entree or fill out the dinner plate. Side dishes often represent the most treasured flavors of the Thanksgiving season.

Here I have collected my seasonal favorites, from bright salads and tasty breads that can be made ahead to simple seasonal sides that cook along with the Turkey.












The Main Course

This is now my favorite way to cook a turkey...


Dessert

In my family Thanksgiving dessert is all about pies, family favorites as well as the obligatiory Pumpkin version. Still there are other outstanding seasonal desserts that would also finish the meal nicely. If you don't find something here, check the "dessert" tab under "labels" on the left sidebar where there are nearly one hundred more desserts to choose from.







The Holiday Weekend

Now that you have the Big Meal planned, here are a few pre- and post- Thanksgiving Dinner ideas you might want to consider.

While I'm planning, setting up and organizing I always feel comforted and inspired by having a pot of soup on the stove. Hungry guests arriving from out of town at odd hours enter the house feeling invited to partake of something warm and satisfying. That soup also means I don't have to cook as they arrive but can concentrate on the prep work necessary for the Thanksgiving meal itself.

This recipe, adapted from my friend Alanna's blog, "A Veggie Venture", is an easy soup to throw together and it is composed of seasonal favorites. The squash bowls make it doubly beautiful but are far from necessary.


For some sweet seasonal bites to have on hand try these Cranberry Pecan Cookies. They offer a fresh taste of seasonal favorites like cranberries, orange and walnuts while also satisfying the sweet tooth.


Or make a batch of these Spirited Sweet Potato Bars.


For Thanksgiving morning or, better yet, the morning after, this baked oatmeal offers a nutritious and filling breakfast that is perfect for those rising early to shop for Black Friday bargains as well as those sleeping in.


Leftovers

Turkey leftovers are one of my favorite holiday benefits. I start using them right after dinner is finished by putting on a pot of turkey stock to simmer while I clean up and visit the family.


Then there are Turkey Sandwiches. As a child I loved taking sandwiches of leftover turkey on plain slices of white bread to school for lunch the week after Thanksgiving. Now I think the Best Turkey Sandwiches are made using several slices of leftover Pumpkin Yeast Bread, a slice of bacon or two tucked away while preparing Corn Salad with Pecan Dressing, and a good dollop of Cranberry Sauce to cradle that wonderful leftover turkey meat.


Other dishes using turkey leftovers include a variation on Aunt Hen's Chicken and Dumplings (simply use the turkey stock and leftover turkey meat in place of the chicken)...


...and my sister-in-law's Turkey Casserole.