Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Vacation!

I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. I thought you might get a kick out of this little guy hanging on our Christmas tree. He's a recent addition to my beloved ornament collection. A gift from my mom, he's got measuring spoons for a tale, slotted spoons as ears, a box grater head and, well, you can see the rest. My mom has been giving me a special ornament every year since my first Christmas. One of my favorite holiday rituals is lovingly unwrapping them and decorating the tree.

This year, Mike and I will be in Bellingham, WA at his parents' home to cook, eat, drink and hang out with them as well as my sister-in-law, Meg, brother-in-law, Scott, and CJ (short for "cousin James"). We're thinking tapas for Christmas Eve, a champagne brunch the next morning and crab legs for Christmas dinner. I have no doubt that it will be a great time. I'll be back to my blog in about a week. I want to leave you with an interesting article that the lovely owner of Kalyn's Kitchen pointed out. YOU just might be Time Magazine's person of year... I don't know about you, but it did make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Have a wonderful holiday!

Last, but not least, this is our cute little "Charlie Brown" tree. Since we'll be away, we just couldn't justify buying a full-size one. But going treeless was simply not an option!

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Stuffed Mushrooms with Arugula & Prosciutto

Easy Holiday Appetizers!

Though not quite as old school as pigs in a blanket or swedish meatballs, stuffed mushrooms definitely fit into the category of "classic" cocktail appetizers. What makes a classic? I say a classic appetizer must be a perenial crowd-pleaser and exhibit a simple elegance that doesn't feel dated. These tasty babies are all that and more.

Mike has become the maker of the stuffed mushrooms in our house. At some point, he was inspired by Paula Deen ('nuff said), but since then, he has made this appetizer his own. As a true classic, they lend themselves well to new interpretations and updates. Just like a perfect pair of jeans or little black dress, they can be an ideal canvas on which to express your personal style. These days, Mike is big into arugula. As for the proscuitto, let's hope that never goes out of style.

You can stuff the mushrooms and refrigerate them for several hours before you want to serve. Just put them straight into the oven from the refrigerator and add a couple extra minutes to the baking time. Mike's other favorite interpretation of this appetizer is his crab leg version. Just substitute the prosciutto for crab meat, the arugula for spinach, and the creole seasoning for Old Bay. Delicious is always in style.

These humble little shroomies were surprisingly fun to photograph. Love the sleek, geometric look.

Stuffed Mushrooms with Arugula and Prosciutto
Makes 24.

3 to 4 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 thin slices prosciutto, finely chopped
1 c. arugula leaves, thick stems removed, finely chopped
2 oz. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Cooking spray (I use the olive oil variety)
24 button mushroom caps, cleaned with a damp paper towel, if necessary
Creole seasoning (substitute any spicy blend or use a combination of black pepper, cayenne pepper and chili powder)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine first four ingredients. Lightly coat a baking sheet with cooking spray. Arrange the mushrooms on the baking sheet and give them a quick coating of cooking spray, as well. Stuff each mushroom cap with some of the filling. Sprinkle creole seasoning over the tops of the stuffed mushrooms. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until mushrooms are soft and cooked through.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Pear Muffins

Bloggers to the Rescue!

I nearly had a food emergency yesterday afternoon. When I returned home from spending the weekend in Toronto, I was greeted by eight perfect pears on my kitchen counter, and every single one was perfectly ripe. My mom had thoughtfully sent Mike and I these pears in a Harry & David gift box last week. When I left for Toronto on Friday, they were all hard as rocks.

If you like pears and try to eat them often, you know that there is a very short window of opportunity for optimum ripeness. Once the bright green color matures to a warm, freckly harvest yellow and the fruit yields to gently pressure all around, you must eat right away. I guessed that my pears were one day away from this stage--perfect for eating, but still suitable for certain recipes. Since I knew I could not eat eight pears in the next day and a half, I set out to find a recipe that would put these beauties to good use.

First I tried recent issues of some of the many food magazines I have scattered around the house. I didn't find anything great there or on the recipe websites that I like. Not only did I want something simple (I had gotten up at 4:45am that morning to catch my flight!), but I wanted to make something I could freeze for Mike to taste when he got back from his business trip in a couple days. I was determined not to let these pears go to waste. The Oregon-grown Harry & David pears are the best I have ever had, so failure was not an option.

Then I remembered the very cool google search tool that Elise recently added to her Simply Recipes blog. It looks for matches exclusively within the food blogs that Elise has on her own comprehensive list. Within seconds, it pointed me to a recipe for pear bundt cake that I remembered seeing on Baking Bites. Just when I was getting excited to use the brand new bundt pan I bought, I noticed a comment referring to this great recipe for pear muffins.

I happened to have every single ingredient for these easy, low-fat muffins, so my search ended there. I liked that Nic used whole wheat flour and plain yogurt in this recipe. Despite their healthy profile, the muffins came out very moist and sweet thanks to the delicious pears. I just polished one off as I wrote the previous paragraph, and they make a very satisfying snack.

I must thank Nic and Elise (not to mention mom, for sending the pears). If I ever have another impending emergency, I will look no further than my fellow food bloggers for help! I absolutely recommend Nic's great recipe whether you are desperate to save some pears or you actually want to plan ahead and avoid any possible produce drama.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Pumpkin Doughnuts

There are certain things that everyone should do at least once. The list could be long and varied, but here are a few that come to mind:
  • Spend time in a foreign country
  • Go skinny dipping in the ocean
  • Stay out all night
  • Fall in love

As it's true in life, so it goes in the kitchen. At least once, everyone with an inclination toward the culinary arts should bake yeast bread, try their hand at a souffle (see this post for inspiration), throw a dinner party and make sushi rolls (with or without raw fish). This past weekend, I added a new item to that list--make your own doughnuts. Like so many other food-related achievements, it was not nearly as complicated as we thought.

I got pumpkin doughnuts on the mind recently as I read all the blogs and magazines full of seasonal dishes spiced with warm fall flavors. When I saw Ivonne's, aka Cream Puffs in Venice, glowing recommendation of a recipe for pumpkin doughnuts from I am not one to whip out the deep fryer at the drop of a hat (difficult, because I don't own a deep fryer), so I doubted that I would act on my desire to beat Dunkin' Donuts at their own game. Then I mentioned the pumpkin doughnuts to Mike, and he lit up like, well, a Christmas tree. Off we went to buy a deep fry thermometer and a whole lot of canola oil, and we were ready to go.

Just in case you're thinking,

"Why do I have to fry my own doughnuts just to prove my culinary mettle, anyway?"

I have two words for you: Krispy Kreme. Just think how amazing a hot, fresh doughnut tastes melting on your tongue. I will warn you that these are more like a cake doughnut than a Krispy Kreme, and I actually preferred to eat mine once they cooled off. But the most important reason for you to make them is that it is really fun! Just follow the directions to keep the oil roughly between 365 and 370, and this is one of the easiest cooking projects you'll ever do. I would also recommend increasing the quantity of all the spices in the recipe, as I felt it was a bit stingy with those fall spices. It took us a total of about 5 minutes to fry the doughnuts to a sufficiently deep brown color, but otherwise, we followed the instructions in the recipe. Do a test donut to see how it cooks, inside and out. If pumpkin's not your thing, here are a couple more tasty recipes that I came across for cardamom-glazed and espresso-glazed doughnuts. Now, if you too are a fan of Dunkin' Donuts famous advertising slogan, repeat after me:

"It's time to make the donuts."

This dough was moist and sticky, so ample flour was used when handling it. We used a 2 1/2 inch biscuit cutter to cut the large rounds and the lid from a bottle of olive oil for the holes.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Blue Cheese Soufflés

When you make a soufflé, do you use a complex, nuanced method that is as sensitive to subtle changes in behavior as an eleven-year-old girl courting her first boyfriend? Are your laborious creations puffing and golden one day, but heavy and sunken the next? If you have a soufflé recipe that puts you through such paces, I would like to see a copy because I have come to believe that no such thing actually exists.

The only soufflé I ever had as a kid was in a nice French restaurant in Southern California where I grew up. We had to order it at the beginning of the meal, and the waiter made much of presenting it to us at its airy zenith and drizzling it ceremoniously with chocolate sauce. I thought soufflé-making was the pinnacle of culinary achievement, one that I might reach someday if I became a glamorous hostess with all the time in the world to practice my art or all the money to hire a private chef to practice it for me.

Then I got older and slightly wiser, thanks to watching Sara Moulton make soufflés time and again on her old show, Cooking Live. As long as I didn’t scramble the yolks and remembered to fold in the egg whites ever so gently, according to Sara, I could do this.

My first time was individual raspberry soufflés dusted with confectioner’s sugar, made for Valentine’s Day. They were perfect, delicious and so easy I thought I’d cheated. What about all those liars whining that making a good soufflé is equivalent to successfully navigating one’s way through The Temple of Doom?

Now, I love to make soufflés, and even though the whiners are wrong, I still feel like a chic domestic goddess when I pull them out of the oven. This blue cheese soufflé has become my favorite. I have been making it for a couple years, usually at the holidays, because it makes a festive meal seem that much more special. I love it with steak, but this time we served it with an arugula salad as one in a series of small plates. With its light, tender texture and bites of melting, mellowed blue cheese, this soufflé is even better than you think it’s going to be. Use the best blue cheese you can get, whether you prefer Roquefort, Stilton, Gorgonzola, Cabrales or an American blue.

This dish is even accomodating enough to bake unattended for 25 minutes while you grill a steak or toss together a salad. As long as you took the time to fold in those egg whites ever so gently, you will be sitting down to one of the most elegant dishes ever to grace your table. And once the last bite is gone, you will be exceedingly anxious to do it again.

Blue Cheese Soufflés
Adapted from Tyler Florence for Food Network. Makes enough for 6-6oz. ramekins, 4-8oz. ramekins or a 2 quart soufflé dish. The 8oz. versions may take slightly longer to bake. I have also divided the recipe in half successfully when I want to make just 2 or 3 individual soufflés.

3 tblsp. unsalted butter, plus more for greasing ramekins
2-3 tblsp. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 tblsp. all-purpose flour
1 c. milk (I use 2%)
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
½ tsp. salt
freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 tsp. dry mustard powder
6 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
5 egg whites

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the ramekins by rubbing the insides all over with butter. Divide the Parmigiano among the ramekins, holding them sideways and spinning them around to get the cheese to adhere to the sides. This gives the soufflé something to cling to.

In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. When it is completely melted and the foam subsides, add the flour as you whisk constantly to form a smooth béchamel sauce. Cook for about two minutes, whisking constantly, to remove the raw flour taste. Slowly add the milk as you continue to whisk until incorporated and slightly thickened. Remove the saucepan from the heat.

Whisk a small dollop of the hot butter-flour mixture into the egg yolks so they don’t cook when you add them to the saucepan. Now add the tempered yolks to your saucepan, whisking to incorporate. Add the salt, pepper and dry mustard. Whisk in the blue cheese.

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixer until they hold soft peaks. Add 1/3 of the egg whites to the saucepan and gently fold them into the cheesy mixture with a spatula. Add the remaining whites in two more additions, folding them in gently. It is not necessary to fully incorporate the egg whites. Since the goal of folding is to preserve as much of their volume as possible, it is okay to see small bits of whites in the mixture. Divide the soufflé mixture evenly among the prepared ramekins. Bake, directly on your oven rack, for 25 minutes. The tops should form golden brown, jagged plateaus and the centers should jiggle ever so slightly. For the most beautiful presentation, serve immediately.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Spiced Lamb Patties with Minty Yogurt Sauce

Meatballs and hamburgers are incredibly versatile foods. Meatballs may be shaped to the size of a tennis ball, baked and served on a bed of smooth polenta or pan-fried to crispy little bites and eaten with toothpicks at a cocktail party. Burgers are an icon of American cuisine, whether flipped off of a backyard grill onto a soft, ketchup-coated bun or stuffed with gorgonzola, topped with red onion compote and broiled in a restaurant kitchen. Meatballs can be make of beef, pork, veal or any combination thereof, and ostrich and salmon burgers are not all that rare.

These lamb patties combine the best elements of the meatball and the burger to create a surprisingly flavorful appetizer. Just as convenient a finger food as a cocktail meatball, the flattened shape of a mini-hamburger allows the development of a dark, crusty char as they cook in a skillet. When we made them, they were actually part of a menu of small plates, since Mike and I would rather eschew the "appetizer-entree-dessert" model in favor of tapas-style eating whenever we have the chance.

I had the idea to make lamb patties, then found a recipe for Middle Eastern-spiced meatballs in December's Bon Appetit. Cinnamon adds an essential element of sweetness and warmth that I heightened with Hungarian sweet paprika. I discovered how this type of paprika can add a smoky sweetness to meats when I recently bought a fresh, quality product instead of resorting to the generic red powder that never tasted like much of anything. It may come in handy for adding a little color to deviled eggs, but it is useless as a seasoning. Cumin further underscores the smoky flavor, and mint, parsley and diced red onion add freshness and moisture.

Bon Appetit calls for a sun-dried tomato aioli with their lamb meatballs, but I decided to try a minty yogurt sauce. Unlike the mayonnaise-based aioli, the creamy Greek yogurt is a cooling, tangy counterpoint to the warm spices and juicy meat. You could make a full meal of the patties and sauce by serving them in pita bread with some romaine lettuce. Whatever you do, I think this is a great formula for creating a new dish: start with a classic (or two); change one element, like the choice of meat; add some unexpected spices from another cuisine; and serve in a creative way. How do new dishes evolve in your kitchen?

Spiced Lamb Patties with Minty Yogurt Sauce
Patties adapted from Bon Appetit. Makes about 12 little patties.

3/4 lb. ground lamb
1/2 c. panko (I used whole wheat)
1/4 c. red onion, finely chopped
1/4 c. fresh parsly, chopped
1/4 c. fresh mint, chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tblsp. Hungarian sweet paprika
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. salt
1-2 tblsp. olive oil

In a large bowl combine lamb, panko, onion, parsley, mint, egg, paprika, cumin cinnamon and salt. Use your hands to mix all the ingredients. Form the lamb mixture into little patties, about 1/2 inch thick. Meanwhile, heat about a tablespoon of oil in a skillet (I use cast iron. You could also cook these on a grill or under the broiler.) over medium-high heat. Add half the patties, or as many as you can fit allowing 1/2 inch of space between them. Cook until the bottoms of the patties are browned to the degree that you like, about 4 minutes. Flip and finish cooking on the other side, about 3 minutes more. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate and cook the remaining patties, adding more oil to the skillet if needed. Serve with the yogurt sauce.

Yogurt Sauce:
8 oz. Greek yogurt (I used Fage Total 0% fat)
5-6 sundried tomato halves, packed in oil, chopped
3 tblsp. fresh mint, chopped
1/4 tsp. salt
sprinkle of freshly ground pepper
1/2 tblsp. extra virgin olive oil

Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl. Serve with the lamb patties. I like to make this before the patties so that the yogurt is not refrigerator-cold when serving and flavors can mesh.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Quick & Healthy: Sausage, Spinach & White Bean Ragout

Tuesday night I sat at our table eating an Amy's Vegetable Lasagna that I cooked in the microwave. Mike was sitting on the couch watching Jeopardy, having already polished off some leftovers. This is generally the scene in our house when it's been a long day and we're too busy to plan and execute a real dinner. I don't necessarily mind nights like this, but I didn't want the rest of this harried week to come and go without sitting down to a nice meal with my husband.

The next day, in the midst of a busy morning at work, I started digging around online for dinner ideas. I did not know what I was in the mood for, but I needed it to have a fairly short ingredient list with nothing so out of the ordinary that I couldn't find it at the supermarket during my lunch hour. When I don't know what I want, I usually end up searching through tons of online recipes, getting sidetracked by the siren call of a chocolate torte here or a cream pie there and still not finding something for dinner.

This time, I vowed not to be picky. All I wanted was something we could cook in less than 30 minutes and drink with a glass of red wine. I must have built up good recipe karma because right on the homepage of, I hit pay dirt. This quick and healthy gem was the "recipe of the day," and it fit all my requirements: simple ingredients, minimal prep, very healthy and amenable to a nice, inexpensive bottle of Sangiovese. This is a stew with less liquid, so it is quite attractive in a wide soup bowl with Parmigiano Reggiano sprinkled on top. Do use red potatoes, cut small so they cook quickly, for their smooth, waxy texture. Any sausage, even pre-cooked or vegetarian will work, just as long as it tastes good with your favorite weeknight wine.

Sausage, Spinach and White Bean Ragout
Adapted from Serves 3-4

Other greens like, swiss chard or mustard greens, would be great here (the original recipe called for escarole, but that's not exactly a staple in my supermarket). You could also add about 1/3 cup of white wine after cooking the sausage and onion, but we were drinking red.

1 tblsp. olive oil
3 spicy Italian turkey sausage links, casings removed (or any sausage you like)
1 c. onion, chopped
1 generous cup cubed red potatoes (about 1/2 inch)
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (15 oz.) can cannellini, or white beans, drained and rinsed
2 to 2-1/2 c. low sodium chicken broth
1 bag baby spinach
1/2 tblsp. fresh rosemary chopped (or substitue 1/2 tsp. dried)
Parmigiano Reggiano, for serving

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, then add the sausage. If you are using pre-cooked sausage, slice it and add it when the onions are almost done. Break the sausage up into small pieces with a spoon as you cook. When the sausage is no longer pink and the onions are lightly browned, add the garlic, potatoes, beans and chicken broth. Use just enough broth to cover the potatoes. Bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 7 minutes. Add the spinach, a handful at a time, then add the rosemary. Continue to simmer uncovered for 4 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with grated cheese.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Mini Pumpkin-Cranberry-Walnut Loaves

Pumpkins start turning up in early October so that we can bring them home and gleefully disembowel them and carve them up for our own morbid amusement. I know I'm not the only one who enjoys scooping out the slimy, stringy insides with my hands. We tell ourselves it's okay because we are going to dry out those slippery seeds, then roast, salt and eat them later when we can't stand the thought of another fun size Butterfinger.

Once the ritual abuse of pumpkins comes to an end, we immediately start making kinder, gentler plans for these innocent gourds. It's a given that they will have a place at the Thanksgiving table in the form of a simple, classic pie. They might find their way into a creamy soup this year, or even homemade ravioli served with a browned butter sauce.

On many of my favorite food blogs, last week was the week of pumpkin. On Baking Sheet, there were light and fluffy Pumpkin Streusel Muffins. Immediately after reading about these muffins, I visited Cream Puffs in Venice where I was delighted to find Ivonne making Pumpkin Donuts with a powdered sugar glaze using this recipe from epicurious. Mike and I plan to try them this weekend. If you want to have dessert and still go the healthy route, you could try this Layered Pumpkin Cheesecake from South Beach Diet guru, Kalyn.

If you are like me, you probably will not touch a fresh pumpkin after Halloween, opting instead for the handy pumpkin puree obtained at any supermarket. I kicked off the holiday baking season last weekend by opening a couple cans to make Mini Pumpkin-Cranberry-Walnut Loaves. I love these because I can get them done early and keep them in the freezer until I am ready to give them as little holiday gifts. I may end up making another batch the week before Christmas because Mike will have eaten all of them, but that's what happens when you leave such tasty things lying around.

Mini Pumpkin-Cranberry-Walnut Loaves
Adapted from Makes 6 mini loaves.

I bake these in mini disposable foil loaf pans that I buy at the supermarket. Because the loaves are tiny, I like to chop the walnuts finely and give the dried cranberries a good chop as well. Though small, these loaves require quite a long baking time. Wearing oven gloves, turn them upside down and flip them out of their pans to make sure the bottom is browned.

2 c. whole wheat flour
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
24 oz. canned pumpkin puree
1 c. sugar
1 c. (packed) golden brown sugar
1 c. vegetable oil (I use Spectrum expeller-pressed canola oil)
4 large eggs
3/4 c. buttermilk
1 1/2 c. (packed) dried cranberries, roughly chopped
1 1/4 c. walnuts, chopped
6 mini loaf pans
nonstick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves in a bowl; whisk to blend.

With an electric mixer, beat pumpkin and both sugars on medium speed until blended. Slowly add the oil while beating. Continue beating and add the eggs, one at a time. Add the dry ingredients in four additions alternately with buttermilk in three additions. If using a stand mixer, keep the machine on low to medium-low while adding flour mixture and buttermilk. Otherwise, stir these in by hand. Stir in the cranberries and walnuts.

Coat the loaf pans all around with cooking spray. Divide the batter evenly among the six pans. Bake for 70 to 80 minutes. Test with a toothpick or cake tester, as well as by checking the bottom of the loaf. It should be lightly browned. If not, continue baking. Cool completely in pans.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Creamy Butterfinger Pie

This is Anna's Chocolate Butterfinger Cream Pie, and it restored my faith in baking. Maybe that is because there is barely any baking involved, but why split hairs? Here's the thing: I was coming off of a string of homemade desserts that just did not send me over the moon. A chocolate cake recipe that turned dry and hard, a chocolate torte that didn't bake evenly... and all this after the fruit pie debacles of the past summer. I was feeling demoralized about my baking skills, but most of all, I just wanted to eat an insanely good dessert that was worth every calorie. I am stringent about only eating desserts that taste absolutely delicious to me. Anything else is just a waste.

I have a predilection for chocolate; in fact, sometimes a dessert cannot truly satisfy me unless chocolate is involved. I also love creamy things: whip cream, icing, mousse. But not ice cream- it's too cold. I admit that I am very picky about what I eat, but it is because I love food and aim to enjoy every last bite. That is why my bad baking streak was so painful. I just wanted something tasty!

Well, this pie did the trick. I saw it on Anna's great baking blog, Cookie Madness, and was enthralled. Imagine a homemade Oreo crust, a rich base of silky chocolate topped with a layer of crushed Butterfingers folded into cream cheese, flavored with butterscotch and lightened with cool whip. I don't think I've ever used so many prepared food items in a recipe before, but I don't care! If you're wearing your 'food snob' hat, fling it off and make this pie!

I even got to practice my previously nonexistent piping skills with the remaining cool whip and a ziploc bag. There's also a secret ingredient that no one eating this pie will ever guess- silken tofu. You blend it with melted chocolate chips to make the chocolate layer, and it sets up to a smooth, yet firm texture. I used semisweet chips, but I thought the flavor was a bit intense next to the lighter Butterfinger layer, although Mike didn't mind it at all. I might use a little less chocolate or go with milk chocolate next time.
I want to thank Anna, a really talented and prolific baker, for her recipe. Visit her blog everyday because she is always doing something wonderful and giving insightful baking tips. The dessert curse is officially broken, and not a minute too soon for holiday baking season!