Friday, December 31, 2010

Another one down...

I can't believe how it snuck up on us, but we've made it to the end of 2010! Happy New Year! What a wild time it has been for us this year - selling one home and yet again moving to another new city, Jeff transitioning to a new team at work and his now (hopefully) cured medical issues.

As for the website, we didn't produce as many new-to-us recipes as we did in years past. I'll blame that on the good chunk of time we spent traveling multiple weeks between Minneapolis and Charlotte, plus all that entails setting up a house. However, we did cross a milestone - after adding up the totals, we now have tried, talked about and posted over 2000 recipes to the site!

Jeff and I thought we would sift through what we made this year and try to narrow down 10 favorites from both the savory and sweet departments, which you'll see below. I asked this question last year and thought I'd ask again - did you get a chance to try any recipes from the site this year that really tickled your fancy? What were your favorites?


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Spicy Sausage Shepherd’s Pie...

The other day, Jeff felt he was up to tackling a meal that was a bit more substantial than soup or his other "soft" snacks. I laid out a few options for him, none of which were overly firm or crunchy in the slightest - he narrowed it down to two, then I picked the one we had the most ingredients for on hand. Spicy Sausage Shepherd’s Pie was the winner and all I had to swing to the market for was a head of cabbage!

As you can expect, the topping for the savory pie is a heaping mound of mashed 'taters - however, as the spuds take a bit to boil and soften, we spent the time they were busy getting a head start on the rather potent filling. Instead of ground beef as the meat, we went for a few links of hot Italian turkey sausage for a zesty punch without the guilt.

Cooked to brown and crumble, we scooted the sausage out of the pan and added thinly sliced green cabbage, diced onion and a few cloves of sliced garlic. If you are using pork sausage, you'll probably have enough fat left behind to soften the vegetables, but if you use turkey as we did, drizzle in a bit of extra-virgin olive oil after the sausage to help them settle in and soften. Chicken broth and a restrained dollop of horseradish join the pan and cook down.

As the broth reduces and the filling intensifies, the already cooked sausage joins the pan once again, along with a handful of chopped fresh parsley. As all those shenanigans were happening, we did take care of those potatoes we had on the stove by draining away the salty water and adding them back to the hot pot for a minute to blast of any excess liquid. Using our trusty potato smasher, we mashed the potatoes to a rough smoothness with a combination of chicken broth and half-and-half. If you'd like to go a little more decadent, switch the second ingredient for cream - quite frankly you could just use a dairy product entirely if you like, but the broth is nice to add depth and make them a little lighter.

You have a couple options when it comes to finishing this off and serving - first would be "family style" by just leaving the sausage mixture in the cooking skillet and simply piling the mashers right on top. Option two, which is what we did, was to divvy the filling and topping between individual baking dishes. All that's left to be done is sliding the dishes (or skillet) under the broiler to give the potatoes a slightly crusty, golden tinge on top.

Call this what you like, but we'll opt for "a big 'ol plate of hearty comfort food" with lots of good-for-you ingredients inside. We greedily dished this out for four servings and found ourselves happily stuffed, but I don't see any issues with this filling out six portions. Jeff was wary of the cabbage, especially with the voluminous amount used, but it blended in quite well with the tangy zip from that horseradish bite and the heat from the sausage distracting him.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Snow... in Charlotte?

Jeff and I hope everyone had a safe, warm and happy Christmas! We played it low-key with Jeff recovering from surgery, but we did manage to get a walk in and Jeff did pretty well. We started yesterday morning off with one of our favorite traditions - Sour Cream Buns! Here they are right from the oven.

We also managed to make a batch of Pepperoni bread, made with homemade dough - Jeff has to have this every year. I'm quite fond of it myself, too!

The weather forecasters here had been talking endlessly about how they expected snow all day yesterday to give the Charlotte area its first white Christmas since 1947. We watched and waited inside with the warmth of the oven going, but all we had was gray skies with the occasional wet drizzle. However, after about 10pm last night, the flakes started to fall and we woke up to this...

Plenty of snow for Gus to romp around in! With a few inches on the ground, he was out running around most of the morning, pushing snowballs around and chomping down on them every so often for a quick snack. He came in the house with snow clumps determined to stay clung to him though. That wasn't so fun, but hopefully this won't be a common occurrence this wintery season (Hello... so we moved here because of the supposed warmth!).

We're looking forward to the New Year and should hopefully get at least a couple new recipes up before then! Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cardamom Biscotti...

We haven't made biscotti in quite some time - I was planning on making a couple different batches for the holiday packages, but we already had a ton of items to make and we frankly ran out of time before they had to go out! Now that we're settling down and Jeff is recovering from his neck surgery (see below!), I found time to crank out this Cardamom Biscotti for me to snack on.

Most biscotti are pretty flexible with adaptations - for these, we went with all-purpose flour, cut with a bit of whole-wheat pastry flour, and ground almonds for a hint of nuttiness. While you could use already ground cardamom, you might want to up the amount as it tends to be less intense than freshly ground. We ground our cardamom fresh for the most gusto, taking the tiny seeds out of their green shells and crushing them with our mortar and pestle.

With a little baking powder for lift and salt to balance the sweetness, granulated sugar joins the dry mixture and the whole shebang is simply brought together with a couple eggs and a heavy splash of vanilla.

Shaped into a log (try to use as little extra flour as possible), the dough is placed on the baking sheet and gently flattened to help the biscotti spread evenly as it bakes. Interestingly enough, instead of coating the dough with a beaten egg white and sugar before baking, this recipe calls for taking the loaf out more than halfway through baking to be coated then. Why? I'm not all that sure, but I followed along and it seemed to work out well.

I didn't want to fudge with the sugar-y crust that had been created on the loaf by spritzing it with water as we typically do with biscotti, so I skipped that process this time. While I don't think it suffered much, the loaf did crumble slightly more than it would have if we had softened the outside.

This biscotti is made without any butter or oils in the tacky dough, making for an extremly crisp and crunchy cookie. Softer versions with added fat do have their place, but I tend to reach for this kind. I'm not really one for dunking, but I could see the aromatic cardamom in these pairing well with your favorite brew, tea or maybe even a cup of decadent hot chocolate. If you wanted to go all fancy, I think a dip or drizzle of melted white chocolate would be fun - dark chocolate may be a bit overpowering here. Lovely by their mildly-spiced selves, we did find them particularly enjoyable crumbled over a bowl of vanilla bean ice cream!

Back to my comment about Jeff's surgery. Some people knew, but most reading this probably didn't. He had surgery last Friday to replace a disc in his neck (anterior cervical discectomy and fusion to be specific) - we stayed at the hospital for a night and came home Saturday. The surgery was successful and he is spending most of his time resting to heal - it will take 3 to 6 weeks for it to settle down and he is given clearance to go back to work. Since they went in through the front of his neck for this type of surgery (I'll spare you his wound picture... he is having fun showing it off - be aware if you click that!), he is restricted to soft foods and liquids. Posts may be fairly slow until he has his appetite back and can eat as usual.

If we're not back to posting before the holiday hits, Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

2010 Holiday Baking Spree...

Ready for our annual monster post? Here it is! We've spent the last several days mixing doughs, running the oven nonstop and using almost all the burners on the stove to crank out many treats for this years gifts. I tried to weave in more new recipes, but Jeff has his traditional "must have" list and it can be hard to manage getting anything else in without cutting out important favorites.

One of those new recipes were these fun Cranberry-Eggnog Twirls. Using a buttery cookie dough laced with rum extract and fresh grated nutmeg, the inside contains thickened cranberry preserves (you could also use cherry, raspberry or another type as well) mixed with toasted pecans for a wondrous nutty surprise. Be sure to finely chop the nuts so they don't cut into the dough when you spread it on top. This cookie can definitely be made ahead of time - keep the rolls of dough in the freezer to slice and bake as needed (remember our cookie dough log trick - store them in paper towel tubes to keep their round shape!), or bake them and stash them in the freezer that way. Either way, you can't go wrong!

I tried to swap this fudge for a new-to-us one, but as I expected, Jeff protested and he was right - I had to make it!. This should definitely cure the itch for any chocolate/peanut butter fans in your life with its creamy smooth texture. You could try a different chip to contrast against the chocolate - say butterscotch or white chocolate, but it will always be peanut butter for us.

These skinny sticks, made with plenty of ground toasted almonds in the dough, are a real eye grabber. Dipped in melted white chocolate, the decadent "glue" allows the sparkling sugar and crushed red candy to stick on one side. They may look innocent enough, but your first bite will let you in on the secret - those red jewels are not just any sweet candy, they are energetic Red Hots!

This next new treat was a last minute addition. While made in the same fashion as any other spiced nut, these almonds are anything but ordinary. Not only do they get a boost from a generous amount of vanilla bean paste and Dutch-process cocoa powder, but a dose of cinnamon and cayenne really fuel the fire for a complex bite. Out of the oven, they had a pretty rough look to them - not necessarily all that attractive. Jeff had a good idea though - after they had cooled down, we tossed them in a bowl with a couple extra spoonfuls of cocoa. This gave them a more cohesive look (and a hot cocoa-esque taste!) - we were tempted to call them hot chocolate rocks instead!

One of our best "no recipe" recipe has to be these one-bite bombs. All these happen to be is miniature Ritz Bitz sandwiches (the peanut butter stuffed ones), dipped in white chocolate and topped with a variety of jimmies/sprinkles/what-have-yous. We found some festive Mickey ones while in Disney a couple weeks ago - I had to practically pry them out of Jeff's fingers to use, but they made it on too! Somehow, though, they managed to escape the picture - I bet I know where those went! One of these years I'll go all out and sandwich the large crackers with a smear of peanut butter myself for giant snacks, but these poppable tiny discs are so easy to do and just too cute to resist.

White Chocolate Dipped Mini Peanut Butter Ritz Bits

We decided to do a couple neighbor-only treats just because they have been so welcoming to us since we moved in earlier this year. Instead of using metal miniature loaf pans and then wrapping up the loaves, we used small oven-safe ceramic bakeware that has festive paintings on the outside. The bread itself is moist and mildly sweet with a warming spice to it that is both welcoming and tasty. To gussy them up a bit, we added a quick vanilla drizzle on top with a smattering of crystallized ginger. For a lighter touch, use lemon juice in the drizzle instead of the vanilla.

Growing up, one of my brothers' must-haves in the cookie trays (besides Buckeye Balls!) were those classic crackly chocolate cookies smothered in confectioners' sugar. This new-to-us version, which is the other recipe we made just for the neighbors, does have a slightly different method, but it is a bit more adult in taste - just what we were looking for! Blooming the cocoa in the warm melted butter seemed to extract a deeper chocolate essence and helped give the cookies an awesome brownie-like texture. The espresso powder can be optional, but I urge you to give it a try using the lesser amount first - it makes for a richer chocolate punch, yet doesn't leave a lingering coffee flavor behind. If you'd like that mocha-hint, kick the amount of powder up.

As always, we used the most butter this year (a bit frightening how much in total) making batch after batch of "the" roca. Once again, using our tweaked recipe, each three and a half pound of sweet candy came out without one issue standing in the way of an impeccable slab. One of these years I'm going to scatter a mess of dark chocolate shards on top for a sharp contrast, but Jeff asked we keep with tradition and use blocks of milk chocolate.

Almond Roca

We just made these gorgeous cookies for a recent Weekly Wednesday Treat day and knew immediately that we'd do them again for our gift baking. I did make one slight change - I used a 2" cutter to stamp out the dark, thin cookie dough to get a larger yield per batch.

Chocolate-Peppermint Cookies

I think one of the most popular and requested munchies from our list would have to be this crazy delicious candied popcorn. Some people may opt to have a pot of mulled cider simmering on the stove to give the house that holiday aroma wafting throughout the house, but I'd much rather let the magical combination of fragrant ginger, cinnamon and molasses do this and end up with a crunchy treat when its done.

One of the items that Jeff requires several batches (I lost count of how many we baked if that is any indication) of every year are these thin, crisp and chewy cookies. We began making these several years ago and haven't looked back - they are fairly unique in taste from a generous scoop of chocolate malt powder and you'll find plenty of M&M's in each one. I do have one quibble though... I used to be able to get enough M&M's from one bag to use in the recipe. Now? I need more like 1 1/2 bags - darn package downsizing!

Chocolate Malted M&M Cookies

Kahlua. Pecans. Cinnamon. Sugar. Yeah, now that's what I'm talking about in a holiday treat! Ridiculously addictive and barely-lift-a-finger easy to make.

Kahlua Spiked Pecans

This fudge always surprises people with its creamy, intense cinnamon rush. I know it can be hard to find cinnamon chips (we did this year!), but it is worth the effort - stock up and stick them in the freezer once you find them if you need to!

Here's another recipe we did for Jeff's co-workers that we thought would make for a smashing treat in our boxes this year. Peppermint and chocolate is a natural setting for a Christmas cookie and the filling in these is just that - they may look a little plain considering their other counterparts in the box, but one bite will wipe that idea right out of your mind. We figured the crisp cookies would be sturdy enough to hold up to shipping, but we're still waiting to hear how they fared.
Mint-Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

If you groove on the mashing of sweet and salty, this next "no-recipe" treat is right up your alley. Simple to do, all you need are waffle pretzels, rolo candies (though chocolate kisses work too) and more of those colorful M&Ms. Spread the pretzels out in an even layer, top them with your chocolate candy and place them in a warm oven just until the chocolate is shiny and has softened slightly. Set an M&M on top, give them a gently press so the chocolate cements to the pretzel and let them cool. If M&M's don't do it for you, grab a fat pecan (lightly toasted!) and use that instead!

Chocolate Caramel Pretzel Squares

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Last treat day of 2010...

We've been in the thralls of our annual Holiday Baking Spree these past few days and have brought all the packages to the post office or delivered the goodie platters to the neighbors today. I'm darn exhausted, the kitchen is an enormous disaster area (let's hope no one rings the door bell for a couple days) and our pantry is sucked dry of its pounds of flour, sugar and obnoxious amount of butter we stocked up on.

It will take me a couple days to get the post up of what we managed to send out this year - I'm aiming for Thursday evening as Friday is going to be an interesting, crazy and long day (more on this later).

I didn't forget about Wednesday Treat Day either, especially since this will be the last one of 2010 for us. There was no way I was going to fit in another recipe, so Jeff and I decided to just make another slab of that scandalous Almond Roca - what's another pound of butter anyway?

Break out those candy thermometers and get a pot of this going for your own holiday trays - your family and friends will thank (or curse... depending!) you.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rigatoni with Roasted Tomatoes and Beans

We usually have a pasta dinner once or twice a week, depending on what we've picked up at the market to pair with it. When we were at one of the larger farmers' market a few months ago (yeah, I'm still behind on recipes!), we stopped by one of our favorite stands which always seems to have the ugliest, but best tasting tomatoes. I went with the thought of getting a couple pounds of them for a sauce, but by the time we got there all they had left was a couple heavy baskets of cherry tomatoes.

Instead of the more traditional sauce I had in mind, we went in a different direction with those tiny tomatoes and made this Rigatoni with Roasted Tomatoes and Beans. Sliced in half, the tomatoes were tossed with olive oil, plenty of fresh garlic, red vine vinegar and a sprinkling of dried oregano. As the tomatoes roast, expect plenty of their juice to sputter out - to help contain any mess that may happen, do this in a 9" x 13" baking pan (like a cake pan), rather than a baking sheet.

Once the little guys had shriveled, concentrating their sweet nature, we took the pan out and stirred in drained and rinsed beans to heat through. Navy beans were suggested, but Jeff has a beef with those softer white beans (texture issue!), so I swapped those out for chickpeas instead - use what you like.

Now, before the tomatoes were done, we had a couple other pots and pans going on the stove to keep this dish moving along. One pot, filled with salted water, had come up to a boil on the stove, ready to cook the tubular pasta we were using. The pan, laced with butter, was then heated to toast a handful of fresh whole-wheat breadcrumbs, turning them darkly golden and nutty. When the pasta tested done, the water was drained away with the pasta remaining in the pot, ready to accept the warm, roasted tomato "sauce".

Tossed with a hit of parsley and a handful of fresh grated Parmesan cheese, we portioned out the generous servings and topped each with a sprinkling of the toasty breadcrumbs and another dose of cheese. We thought the roasting of tomatoes and garlic made all the difference in this, especially with that pleasant zing of vinegar, making for a more robust coating that both of us enjoyed with a silly grin on our face. I'm sure using just-picked tomatoes helped, but even if you had wimpier tomatoes, you might be surprised what a little time in the oven can do!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Disney and work treats...

Jeff's big birthday present (way back in September) was a trip to Disney World in December to experience Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. Because of timing and other obligations, we were only going to be able to go for a quick extended weekend - we left at 3 am Friday morning and started our trip back home Monday afternoon. Whew! Whirlwind trip, but we packed in all the wonderful decorated sights we could.

We stayed at the Port Orleans French Quarter resort - this was our second time at this one and it was just as lovely - clean, quiet and had a beautiful view of a river that runs behind it. Here I am standing by one of the fountains in the courtyard.

Disney definitely goes all out for Christmas and we are glad we made the drive down to see it, though I was surprised with all the decorated Christmas trees we saw, most of them didn't have any Mickey-related decorations on them. The resorts don't go as crazy as the parks, but several of them had these outrageous gingerbread houses - here's a snap of one of the many.

And here is what it look to make the giant house - dang!

We were in awe Saturday night when we went to walk through the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Hollywood Studios - what a show!

If you are ever visiting Disney during this time of the year, that is definitely a must-see.

The Christmas Party was a pretty spectacular event - they escorted anyone not attending the party out at 7 pm, only allowing those with the party wristbands to stay. The Disney folks were pretty strict about it too! They had a number of shows all around the park, a special parade and, of course, an amazing fireworks display. Viewing the castle all light up was a sight to be seen!

One of many little touches Disney does.

We had our share of food, but nothing really to write home about as we didn't go out of our way this trip to make any sit-down dining reservations. Jeff and I did go to Earl of Sandwich a couple times and that place never manages to disappoint. One notable exception was the mile high Red Velvet Cheesecake Cupcake from Starring Roles Cafe - sweet, but stupendously good.

I was anxious to see how wearing those Vibram Five Fingers would make my feet feel after the miles and miles we ended up walking over trip.

I'm pleased to say my feet have never been happier! With shoes, I always ended up sore at the end of the day during our Disney trips, but not this time. My feet were quite comfortable, relaxed and ready to go, even after all the walking! I was, however, not expecting all the attention they got - lots of comments and questions while standing in line, with the random toe-groping (really - it happened a few times!) from little ones whose parents were not paying attention.

It wasn't a perfect trip though - Jeff lost his credit card on Saturday, the movie we went to see late that same evening restarted 3 times four minutes into the film, after sitting through 20 minutes of previews, (they ended up giving everyone refunds as they couldn't fix the problem) and the weather was pretty cold for Florida!

After we got back late last night, I remembered that I still needed to get a treat day goodie together for Jeff to bring in Wednesday morning. I completely forgot to plan for that and not having time to go to the market, it had to be something that could be thrown together with pantry ingredients. We ended up with the much published Snickerdoodle Blondies that have been traveling the food blogosphere. I don't have much time tonight to talk about them, but here's a brief overview.

Prepared in a flash, these bars were in the oven and cooled before I knew it! Brimming with cinnamon, we did pack one more zing into these with the help of a handful of Cinnamon Chips - you don't need to use them, but they are a fun addition. Just leave them out if you don't have any.

Before the blondies went into the oven, the stiff dough was sprinkled with a mixture of sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg to give them a flashy topping - you can use all granulated sugar, but we used a mixture of coarse (demerara in our case) and granulated for extra crunch. The bars are dense and moist, with a candy-like chewy sweetness to them that swayed Jeff and I both to have another one after dinner (we tested them out before we sat down to eat!). I thought about browning the butter first, then letting it cool and firm back up in the refrigerator, but I wondered if that intense nuttiness would take away from the cinnamon. I might try that at some point, but made as is, we were quite satisfied!