Monthly Archives: December 2011

Traditions

Christmas is all about traditions. Like footie pajamas from Santa and popsicle stick ornaments handmade with love by little hands. Traditions are what make the holidays special. Tattered recipe cards smudged with chocolate. A blizzard of colored sugar over spritz cookies. An old tune that makes you smile. Tradition must be what keeps us coming back to this crazy, stressful thing called Christmas year after year. Without all those tiny nostalgic moments, the story that goes along with that ornament, the first taste of that signature holiday dish, this time of year just wouldn’t be the same.

When I was much younger, one of my favorite holiday traditions was going “downtown.” Chicago, that is. The Saturday before Christmas, we’d bundle up in mittens and scarves and head in to the Windy City. I loved the way the skyline appeared, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Buildings blocked the already weakened winter sun, throwing cold shadows across miles of city sidewalks as we walked with a certain quickness in our step, trying to outrun the Jack Frost nipping at our noses.

After pausing for a photo op in front of the tree in Daley Plaza…

We’d walk another couple blocks to my favorite part of the trip – Marshall Fields and their fabulous holiday window displays. Tiny mechanized figures wove an intricate story behind glass that stretched an entire city block. When you’re 6, 7, 8…it was like pure magic.

When our noses where sniffly and our fingers and toes cold as ice, we’d push through the revolving glass doors under that famous clock and step inside to get warmed up. I loved going up to the higher floors and looking down on the Walnut Room with it’s beautiful towering tree, crisp white tablecloths and elegant place settings. It always made me want to trade my blue jeans and gym shoes for a red velvet dress, cream colored tights, and shiny black patent Mary Janes. And if you inhaled real deep, mingling among the sweet, powdery scent of perfume and the deep, earthy smell of leather there was a hint of something delicious in the air….

CHOCOLATE.

Boxes of Field’s famous Frango chocolates (handmade in the State Street store until well into the 90s) were always staple at holiday time. Just lifting the lid on that little green box smells like Christmas and memories. We all know what happened to Field’s (sad face) but luckily these little minty chocolate gems are still available at….that other store. I tend to snatch a box when they’re on sale. For nostalgia.

Another thing I tend to snatch up on sale is cookbooks. When I spotted this Marshall Field’s Cookbook in a used bookstore, I just couldn’t resist it. The best part? There’s an entire chapter devoted to treats featuring those tiny, tasty mints.

These Frango Mint Pots de Creme are like chocolate pudding all grown up. While I was a fan of simply stuffing chocolates in my mouth until I was ready to explode when I was younger, now I find it’s fun to take familiar flavors and turn them into something a bit more sophisticated. These creamy individual desserts are just the ticket.

What we have here is basically an ice cream base that’s baked instead of frozen. Milk. Yes. Cream. Of course. Egg yolks for extra richness and yumminess. Hells yes. Sometimes I find custards to be a bit too eggy for my tastes, but this….this is just creamy, minty, chocolatey, melt-in-your mouth perfection. With a generous dollop of fresh whipped cream and a few chocolate shavings, make these and you could have a new holiday tradition on your hands. You’ve been warned. 🙂

FRANGO MINT POTS DE CRÈME (Recipe Source: The Marshall Field’s Cookbook)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 16 Frango mint chocolates, chopped, plus extra for garnish
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • Fresh whipped cream, for serving

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and place the rack in the center position. Bring milk to a simmer in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped chocolates and stir until melted. Remove from heat and stir in the cream. Set aside to cool slightly.
  2. Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until well combined but not foamy. Slowly pour the chocolate mixture into the egg mixture, stirring constantly. Strain through a fine mesh sieve. Let the mixture rest for ten minutes at room temperature.
  3. Divide the mixture among six 3/4-cup ramekins. Set the ramekins in a baking dish and place the dish in the oven. Pour hot water into the baking dish to reach about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the pan with foil and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until just set at the edges but still soft in the center. Do not overbake.
  4. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled. The custards can be made up to two days in advance and covered and refrigerated until ready to serve. Serve with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Serves 6.

ENJOY! 🙂

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Crafty

If there’s one thing my mom and I can’t resist it’s a good craft fair. I can’t put my finger on what draws us to these hotel ballrooms and school gymnasiums filled with handcrafted wares, but if there’s one in the area, you better believe we’re ponying up the three bucks to get in and dropping our names into the box for a chance to win a door prize.

Maybe it’s the spicy scent of cinnamon potpourri. Or the catchy Christmas tunes being pumped in even when the calendar still reads October. Maybe it’s the tiny shred of hope that the snack mix lady, who hasn’t been seen since about 2003, will make a miraculous comeback and be there to share her sweet, crunchy Chex cereal/M&M goodness with the world once again. Whatever the reason, we just can’t seem to stay away.

But nowhere in either of our respective homes does a a smiling country snowman proclaiming ‘Let it Snow’ fit in. Crocheted coasters? My mom already has pile of those she made herself. In like 1978. Wine bottles stuffed with Christmas lights are played. That wreath that looks like Santa’s head complete with floppy arms and legs – uhhh…a little creepy, if we’re being honest.

The items seem to fall into one of two categories: 1) Try Not To Snicker Too Loud Because the Person who Made it is Sitting Right There and Will Feel Bad. 2) That Doesn’t Look Hard to Do At All. Fifty Bucks? Please. We Could SO Make That Ourselves.

If we were, you know, crafty.

We are not crafty. We hold out hope that one day we will be crafty, but that day has yet to arrive. Sad country snowman. 😦

So when I find a recipe that’s really just an edible craft project in disguise, I don’t know why I think it will be easy. I fall for it every single time! Blast!

These little Christmas donut bites from Love From the Oven caught my eye in one of those That Doesn’t Look Hard At All, I Could So Do That Myself kind of moments.

A simple mini donut baked up in my trusty, handy-dandy mini donut pan (I don’t use this pan very often. I wonder why. Oh. It’s kind of a pain? Now I remember.), dipped in chocolate (Yup. That always goes super smooth with no trouble at all. Right.), and then decorated with simple edibles. Like candies! And pretzels that look like antlers! Breaking pretzels into antler shapes is not only genius, it’s super easy.

For everyone except for me, of course. Apparently, a soft touch is needed to break pretzels. Evidence would suggest I’m about as gentle as an angry caged lion. THESE PRETZELS ARE MAKING ME THIRSTY! ARGH!

In the end, they came out quite well. Of course, I learned that certain mini chocolate chips have the tendency to make snowman look a little crazed if not downright pissed off. So there’s that. I ate those. Any Christmas treat that gives me the stink eye ends up jammed into my mouth. So there.

These were, of course, a big hit with all that received them. Because, crafty or not, they are pretty darn cute. And pretty darn tasty. As with most crafty projects, they take a little time and a little patience, but the end result is sure to have you coming back for more.

CHRISTMAS DONUT BITES (Donut recipe adapted from Stephanie Cooks, decorations from Love from the Oven)

What you’ll need:

  • Mini donuts (I baked mine using my mini donut pan, the recipe appears below, you could also use plain store bought donuts or fry up some yeast donuts if you’re feeling really ambitious)
  • 5 to 6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, melted
  • 5 to 6 ounces white chocolate, melted
  • Mini pretzel twists, broken in half to create antler shapes
  • M & M candies in red and orange
  • Large white pearl sprinkles (like these)
  • Mini chocolate chips

What you’ll do:

  • Make donuts cool completely before decorating.
  • For the reindeer, gently press the pretzels into the tops of the donuts and then remove (when you dip the donut in the chocolate, it will sink down into the holes so you can see where to place the antlers. This also acts as a little bit of ‘glue’ to hold them in place.)
  • Holding the donut by the bottom, dip the tops in the melted chocolate. Twist gently to remove the excess and allow it to drip back into the bowl. Turn right side up and reinsert pretzels if using. Place on a wire rack.
  • Gently drop an M&M (red for reindeer nose, orange for snowman nose) into the center of the donut. You may find that it sinks pretty far inside. If that happens, just place a second M&M on top so the nose is prominent.
  • Place two white pearl sprinkles above the nose to for the reindeer eyes. Use mini chocolate chips to make snowman eyes and mouths.
  • Allow the donuts to sit at room temp for the chocolate to set before packaging.

EGGNOG SPICE BAKED DONUTS

*You’ll never ever EVER find me drinking eggnog, but it is a fun holiday flavor to use in baking and one I’m warming up to as of late. These little donuts were a great way to use it!

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup flour
  • Scant 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tbsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup low fat eggnog
  • 1/2 tsp rum extract
  • 4 tbsp canola oil

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat the oven to 450.
  2. Stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg. Add the egg, rum extract and eggnog then whisk for 1 minute. Add the oil and continue to whisk until well combined.
  3. Grease the mini donut pan liberally. Fill each with about 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of batter (do not overfill, they’ll puff up like cupcakes and not look like donuts anymore!). Bake for 3 to 5 minutes. Cool completely before decorating. Yields about 4 dozen.

ENJOY!

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Tidings of Comfort

Food blogging is like the ultimate dinner party. There’s great food, good conversation, a connection between people with similar interests. There’s a kind of sharing that you just don’t seem to find on other blogs. What better way to say “hey, I like you!” than with a heaping plateful of pasta or delectable layer cake. Food makes others feel welcome. In real spaces and virtual ones as well.

I’ve been reading some blogs for four years or more and I love describing them to people who’ve never seen them. “This is so-and-so’s blog,” I’ll say. “She lives here, does this and likes that. She makes the most amazing <layer cakes, Mexican food, meat-free eats, sugar cookies> ” The little details you glean from a few paragraphs, photos and recipes makes you feel like you’ve known someone forever, even if you’ve never met. Sharing in the excitements of accomplishments or the joys of new babies makes it feel like there’s always a friend celebrating. It’s great to share in those moments.

But sometimes, life gets tough. That’s when the blogging community really comes together.

One of my very favorite bloggers, Annie over at Annie’s Eats, posted over the holiday weekend that she lost her father suddenly and unexpectedly on Thanksgiving day. My heart just broke for her and her family. How devastating. Many times over the course of that weekend while in the company of family and friends, my thoughts turned to Annie and her family. I wished there was something I could do to help. Even though we’re strangers, I feel like I know Annie. I think that’s what makes her such a amazing blogger.

So I made a cake. To dedicate and share with a blogger who is restless and hurting. A cake filled with the simple goodness of sugar and butter and cinnamon. The kind of cake to eat in the morning when house is quiet but thoughts are noisy and raw, stinging like icy winter sleet. When the world is washed in the gray-blue shadows of dawn that just don’t seem to brighten. The kind of cake a friend would bring to the doorstep of another who needed it, complete with hot coffee, patience and time. The kind of cake to talk over. Or sit quietly over. To grieve over. Maybe even laugh over. The kind of cake that may taste like a happy memory.

If I could, I would bring a cake like this one to Annie and her family. It’s rich, warm and satisfying. It tastes like a hug with a thick layer of crunchy cinnamon crumbs blanketing a buttery yellow cake. There’s no intricate steps, no fancy ingredients, just plain good food. It’s the kind of cake that can be made quickly, delivered promptly and enjoyed while still warm from the oven. Perfect for a friend in need.

Annie, we’re all thinking of you, praying for you and wishing you peace and comfort during this time. Hugs and cakes to you.

NEW YORK STYLE CRUMB CAKE (Recipe Source: Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito)

INGREDIENTS:

For the topping:

  • 1 cup packed golden brown sugar
  • ½ cup white granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 ½ tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted (oh yes, TWO STICKS. Faint)
  • 2 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour

For the cake:

  • 2 ½ cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 12 tablespoons (1 ½ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 ½ cups white granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 ¼ cups sour cream

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F and with the oven rack in the center. Grease the bottom and sides of a 9 x 13 glass baking dish.
  2. Make the topping: Combine sugars, salt and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Pour the melted butter and whisk until combined, crushing any large lumps. Stir in flour until mixture is uniform. Set aside until ready to use.
  3. Make the cake: Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.
  4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream the butter on medium speed until smooth. Scrape down the bowl and add sugar, then continue to beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating for 30 seconds  and scraping down the side of the bowl after each addition. Add sour cream and vanilla and beat until just combined. Stir in the flour in thirds, scraping the sides of the bowl before each addition, until fully incorporated. Batter will be thick.
  5. Pour the batter into buttered pan, level with a spatula. Scoop a handful of the topping mix into your hand, make a fist, and break off pieces to crumble the topping over the batter. Repeat until all the topping is used. Crumble topping will be very thick.
  6. Bake for 45-55 minutes or until a toothpick entered into center comes out clean, rotating the pan twice. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 30 minutes before serving.

ENJOY! 🙂

 

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