Monday, December 31, 2007

My Favorite Things in 2007


This year was pretty amazing for me personally, professionally and foodwise (Is there an adverb like "culinarily?" If you know one, leave a comment). I thought it would be pretty hard to beat 2006, the year I got married, started this blog and had the privilege of being in my sister-in-law's wedding. But 2007 turned out to be quite a doozy--in a really good way!

For Mike and me, 2007 was all about travel. This was possible largely because I quit my full-time job to pursue freelance writing. I love working towards my own success instead of a corporation's bottom line, and I've never once had a morning when I woke up and dreaded the day ahead. When Mike's aunt and uncle relocated to Singapore, we were able to head off to Southeast Asia for three weeks in June. We were so fortunate to have that freedom.


In Singapore we ate Black Pepper Crab, feasted on hawker centre fare, drank Singapore Slings at the Long Bar and faced down a Komodo dragon.

In Bangkok, we saw the big Buddha (or twelve), hung out at the food court and cooked our hearts out at Baipai (that's what we're doing in the picture at the top of this post). Here's the incredible cashew chicken recipe we learned. I was also thrilled to know that our version of homemade pad thai (below) is pretty darned authentic!


In Vietnam, we fell in love with the food and ate the pho we should eat before we die in Ho Chi Minh City. We had more truly beautiful food at Lemongrass (4 Duong Nguyen Thiep, 822-0496), and had a salty dog with a crocodile. In Nha Trang, we ate incredible seafood, soaked in the mineral mud and did some fantastic diving.

We fell in love with just about everything in Tokyo. Especially hidden udon noodles, hot or cold soba, shabu-shabu (below), FRESH fish and French pastry.


In 2007, I also got to show Mike London, one of my favorite--possibly most favorite--cities. We went to all my favorite places and then spent a few days Amsterdam, a city that was new to both of us. We also had Dutch-style Indonesian food for the first time--it's spicy and sort of like tapas--awesome!

We were thrilled to go to Southern California for a wedding, visit my mom and--last but not least--take a drive to the Santa Ynez wine country. There, we experienced one of the top food highlights of the year--Burger night at The Hitching Post. Best burger I've ever eaten. I dream of it.

Now onto my favorite recipes of the year:

My favorite meal--Duck Leg Guazzetto that I raved about here and here. It's so different, so easy--a really perfect braised dish.

My favorite big hunk o'meat recipe: Slow-Roasted Pork with Memphis Barbecue Sauce. This is the best and easiest BBQ sauce I've ever had. Read about it here and here. And don't forget the cornbread.

My favorite hors d'oeuvres--I'd call them appetizers, but they're just too fancy (but not difficult!). Gruyere Gougeres are perfect with Champagne (I'm making some tonight!), and Chicken Liver Pate with Pistachios and Apple-Thyme Chicken Liver Mousse are two of the best reasons in the world to eat organ meat.

An honorable mention goes to Brik, the Tunisian dish that involves a creamy egg yolk, tuna and parsley fried inside wonton shells. Fun to make and better to eat.

My favorite breakfast--I had a revelation yesterday involving Eggs Benedict and Julia Child's Hollandaise sauce. It's a dish truly greater than the sum of it's parts. Next time you make Hollandaise sauce, do not skimp on the lemon juice. As far as favorites go however, I have to name these Cinnamon Oat Scones--best scones ever.


My favorite sweet thing--I have to choose these soft Peanut Butter Cookies I originally found on Cookie Madness. Mike probably mentions them every other week, eyes rolling back in his head in blissful reverie. Honorable mention goes to Guinness Cupcakes with Espresso Cream Frosting. My name is O'Hara, after all.


My favorite novelty that's really delicious: Bacon and Egg Ice Cream--it just works.

Other Favorites:


In 2007, I went tart-crazy. Sweet or savory, these are some of my favorite things to make. They are delicious as dinners, lunches and brunches. From the crop of tarts, my Brussels Sprout-Chestnut Tart and the Zucchini-Lettuce Tart (above) from Eric Kayser's Sweet and Savory Tarts (a fantastic book) are my favorites.

Favorite Restaurant: I just mentioned Michael's Genuine in the last post because of the wonderful Chicken Liver Toasts they serve. We are working our way through most of the menu, and haven't been disappointed. I love, love this place. It's cozy, unpretentious (for Miami) and fairly priced. Forget the Setai, Casa Tua or Azul--if I had one night in Miami, I'd go to Michael's.

Favorite Personal Cooking Triumph: Though I didn't blog about it, I had a huge success with baking my grandma's homemade bread. It's a sweet, babka-like loaf filled with brown sugar, nuts and cherries and makes the best ham sandwich ever. Using her totally imprecise, very fuzzy recipe, I produced two gorgeous, golden loaves. I have to tinker with the recipe a bit before I write up my final version, but now I know hope for the bread is not lost.


Favorite Cookbook: This is a hotly contested category. Every year, I get new things I can't put down and also rediscover older books in my library. Right now, the books not far from my side are the Les Halles Cookbook (2004) and The Cornbread Gospels by Crescent Dragonwagon--just released this fall in a homey paperback, the author's food sensibility and passion for her subject and the people who cook it are a total delight.

So what did I forget? If you have a blog and wrote a "Best of 2007" list, leave a link in the comments. I love reading these recaps and remembering the delicious, surprising or funny things that happened in the past year. I hope all of you are well-loved and well-fed in 2008!

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Two Appetizers for New Year's Eve: Apple-Thyme Chicken Liver Mousse and Pistachio-Chicken Liver Pâté


I hope you all had a wonderful holiday, however you celebrate (or not). I had a fun, relaxing Christmas full of great presents and amazing food. I know I'm incredibly lucky, and now there's even more to look forward to with New Year's coming up. My school's football team, the Boston College Eagles, plays their bowl game tonight, and we're celebrating by trying out a recipe from one of the new cookbooks I got for Christmas. I'm trying to get some work done before another weekend starts, and I have so many recipes I want to post on this blog! I will start with two you may want to make this weekend.

If you are looking for elegant New Year’s Eve appetizers, I’m sending chicken livers to your rescue. If you are already gung-ho over nose-to-tail eating, this is child’s play. If you’re not so sure about chicken livers, consider this: they are so cheap and easy to prepare that you won’t be taking a big risk if you don’t like them. If you’re worried about squeamish friends and family, just call these dishes “country pâtés” and hope they are too embarrassed to ask you to explain exactly what’s in it. After the first bite, they won’t care anymore.

I may have tried pâté a couple times over the years, but I never had any interest in it until Mike and I had the chicken liver toasts at Michael’s Genuine, a restaurant in Miami that has become our new favorite place. If you’ve had foie gras, that’s the closest reference point I can think of for chicken liver. Unlike the geese raised for foie gras however, the chickens don’t get any special treatment, which explains why you can buy a pound of all-natural, hormone-free chicken livers at Whole Foods for about $2.37.

When cooked until just a bit pink inside and whizzed up into a pâté or mousse, the flavor of the livers is densely meaty, like an ultra-concentrated stock. If you make the mousse, you’ll get an airy, spreadable texture, not unlike chocolate mousse. The cold, creamy quality of the whipping cream that is usually associated with sweetness is equally complimentary to the savory flavor of the livers. The thick pâté is better suited to slicing, and you can enjoy the color of the pistachios that way.

We scaled down these recipes and made them at the same time, Mike standing over a skillet of steaming apple chunks, and me sautéing shallots on another burner. Since we never made either a chicken liver mousse or pâté before, it was fun to compare the methods (very similar until the end) and the finished products (totally different, yet complementary). I’m not sure which one I like better, but these recipes have a permanent home with us. Another fancy (and vegetarian) New Year’s Eve favorite is my gruyère gougères, the best cheese puffs ever, especially if you’re drinking Champagne!

Mike's chicken livers cooking with apples and onions for the mousse.

My chicken livers cooking with caramelized shallots and sherry for the pâté.

Chicken Liver-Pistachio Pâté
Adapted from this recipe in Food and Wine magazine, December 2007
This will keep in refrigerator for two weeks. Serve on toasted baguette or ciabatta bread. F & W also suggested stuffing a bit of pâté into brandy-poached prunes--yum!

Makes about 1 1/4 cups. Recipe may be doubled.

4 tbs. unsalted butter, softened (divided use)
1 large shallot, thinly sliced (about 1/4 cup)
1/2 lb. chicken livers, rinsed and trimmed of any fat (there won't be much)
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup dry sherry or marsala
2 tbs. chicken broth
1/3 cup plus 1 tbs. salted roasted pistachios, chopped (divided use)
1 tbs. chopped flat leaf parsley
1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 tbs. unsalted butter, melted

Add 1 tbs. of the softened butter to a large skillet over medium-low heat. When the butter has melted, add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 8 minutes. Raise heat to medium, add chicken livers, season with salt and pepper, and cook, turning once or twice until firm, about 4 minutes. Add the sherry and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the chicken broth and continue cooking, turning livers a few times, until they are light pink in the center, about 4 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and transfer 2 chicken livers to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, chop the 2 livers into tiny pieces, about the size of the chopped pistachios. Set aside.

Transfer the contents of the skillet to a blender or food processor and puree. With the machine running, add the remaining 3 tbs. of softened butter, one tablespoon at a time and blend until completely incorporated. Transfer the puree to a bowl and fold in the reserved chopped livers, 1/3 cup chopped pistachios, the parsley and the thyme. Season with salt and pepper, tasting as you go. Transfer the pâté to a ramekin, mason jar or other serving vessel, smoothing the surface as much as possible. Cover and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

Pour the melted butter evenly over the surface of the pâté , then sprinkle with the remaining tbs. of chopped pistachios. Cover and refrigerate until butter is firm, or for up to 2 weeks. Served chilled or at room temperature.


Apple-Thyme Chicken Liver Mousse
Adapted from this recipe on Foodtv.com, courtesy of Alton Brown

Makes about 2 cups. Recipe may be doubled.

1 tbs. unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped tart apple
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 pound chicken livers, rinsed and trimmed of fat (there won't be much)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tbs. brandy
1/2 cup heavy cream


In a large skillet over low heat, melt the butter and cook the onion and apple, covered, until apples soften. Remove lid, increase heat to medium, add the livers, and season with salt and pepper. Cook until firm and still pink inside, turning several times, about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool, about 10 minutes.

Add the contents of the skillet to a food processor along with the brandy and thyme, and puree until smooth. Transfer to a large bowl, cover and refrigerate until chilled, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile, whip the heavy cream to medium peaks. Adding about a quarter of the whipped cream at a time to the liver puree, gently fold the cream into the liver. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper. Serve chilled.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Golden Split Pea Soup with Leftover Ham


When it comes to Christmas dinner, does tradition dictate most of the meal, or is yours the type of wild and crazy family that changes it up from year to year? When I was growing up, we went the traditional route. Even though sides, desserts and even the location of the meal changed, we always had a baked ham for Christmas Day. Just like we always had a turkey for Thanksgiving. I have to admit that there is some comfort in cooking routines, even though I was never a great fan of the sometimes dry, sometimes salty ham.

One thing I did like about the Christmas ham, however, was the yellow split pea soup my mom made with the leftovers. To make good split pea soup, you really need to have a ham bone to flavor the broth. All those little leftover pieces of meat can be added at the end to make a substantial, creamy soup infused with the flavor of pork--serious comfort food.

Mike and I don't have a traditional meal we eat every Christmas, but this year we decided to give the baked ham another shot. But instead of having it for Christmas dinner, we baked our ham a couple weeks ago and have been loving the leftovers, especially this Golden Split Pea Soup. Ham really shines in leftovers--think sandwiches, omelets, frittatas or pasta dishes. My mom had an aversion to green split peas, and no wonder--the brownish-green color of a green split pea soup isn't exactly appetizing. The yellow ones, on the other hand, are just as easy to find and result in an inviting, cheery-hued soup.

For this recipe I turned to Cook's Illustrated and adapted a version on their website. It's easy and so, so good. You just simmer the ham bone to create a smoky broth, then cook the split peas until nearly dissolved and creamy, along with some potatoes. Caramelized aromatic veggies are added at the end, along with leftover ham pieces. It is of course even better a day or two later, as it thickens further and the flavors develop. Whether or not you usually eat ham for Christmas, it is perfectly fine to get one for the sole purpose of using the leftovers in recipes like this.

Onions, carrots, celery and garlic--caramelized and buttery.

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Golden Split Pea and Ham Soup

Adapted from Cook's Illustrated
You don't have to pick the ham bone clean. Just trim off the large pieces of fat and all the nice chunks of meat you'll want to add to the finished soup. Sauteeing the vegetables separately and adding them at the end allows them to retain their texture and caramelized flavor.

Serves 4-5

3 quarts water
Bone from a baked half-ham or ham shank
3 dried Turkish bay leaves
14 oz. yellow split peas, rinsed and picked through
1/2 tsp. dried thyme, plus a pinch
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbs. olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1 1/2 cups chopped carrots
3/4 cup chopped celery
1/2 tbs. unsalted butter
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
2 cups new potatoes cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 1/2 to 2 cups ham cut into bite-sized pieces
Optional Garnishes: fresh thyme, diced red onion and/or balsamic vinegar for serving

Bring the water, ham bone and bay leaves to a boil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove bone from pot and discard. Add the split peas, thyme and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Uncover the pot and continue to simmer for 15 minutes. Add the potatoes and simmer for 15 minutes more.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, carrot and celery and cook, stirring frequently for 6 to 7 minutes, or until the liquid they release evaporates. Season with salt and pepper and a pinch of dried thyme. Reduce heat to low and continue cooking until vegetables are deeply browned, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the butter and garlic, cook for 3 minutes and set aside.

After the potatoes have simmered for 15 minutes, add the vegetables and ham pieces to the soup. Simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Skim any fat off the surface if desired. Taste for seasoning and serve.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Duck Guazzetto and More Links to Holiday Recipes


The last few work days before a big holiday are always torture, and now is no exception! I can’t wait to kick back and revel in some holiday indulgence--not to mention presents. They’ve been taunting me from under our tree for weeks now because Mike is very conscientious about getting presents wrapped early. It’s really cute, actually. Plus, it motivates me to get my wrapping done too, instead of saving it for the last minute, as usual.

One thing that’s really helped us enjoy the whole Christmas season this year is NOT saving all the fun stuff up for the 24th and 25th. Tomorrow, for instance, we plan to open a bottle of Port we got last summer when we did some wine tasting in Los Olivos, California. We always buy Port at Christmas, but in past years we’ve opened it on Christmas day when we’re already stuffed and can’t fully enjoy it. This year, we’re using it to celebrate nothing more than, “Hey, it’s Thursday”. Little things like this really perk up an average weeknight.

When it comes to food, there are so many “special” recipes we want to cook for Christmas, that this year we decided not to pick just one. Last weekend, we made Duck Leg Guazzetto, a dish I think is truly, utterly phenomenal. It’s a recipe by Lidia Bastianich that was published in the January ’07 issue of Gourmet. The homemade, toasted pasta is so easy you’ll think you missed a step (and NO pasta machine is required!). The slow cooked duck legs become fall off the bone tender in a braise flavored with wine, rosemary and whole cloves. You must shave Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, and it’s bliss from there. I posted the recipe and pictures nearly a year ago, but after making it again last weekend, I just had to revisit it on the blog. It would make an incredible centerpiece for an intimate holiday meal.

If you’re still thinking about what to cook for the holidays, whether it’s Christmas Eve, New Year’s or, “Hey, it’s December 28th,” I have some ideas for you. Some appeared on this blog, and some are from other fabulous food blogs.

From Mingling:
Spaghetti Bolognese with Chestnuts: Your favorite meat sauce with a little something special.
Brussels Sprout-Chestnut Tart with Pancetta: "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire..."
Big Italian Meatballs with Creamy Polenta: A meatball that's a meal.
Exotic Rack of Lamb: Sexy, fancy, perfect for holiday.


A duo of elegant vegetarian tarts: Caramelized Onion and Blue Cheese Tart and Swiss Chard Custard Tart with Yeast Crust


And for dessert...

Chewy Chocolate Cookies with Mini Peanut Butter Cups
Cranberry-Almond Crostata: Take advantage of those fresh cranberries in this lovely recipe!
All in One Holiday Bundt Cake: apples, pumpkin, cinnamon, cranberries, maple and pecans (whew!)--all the flavors of the season in one great cake.

From Some of My Favorite Foodies:
A gorgeously seasonal Pomegranate and Spinach Salad from Brilynn of Jumbo Empanadas
An authentic Cassoulet from Veronica's Test Kitchen
Chocolate Macarons with Peppermint Ganache from Anita of Dessert First--I'll be trying my hand at French macarons this weekend with Anita's and Helene's posts as a guide!
The Espresso-Chocolate Shortbread Cookies from Deb of Smitten Kitchen--or any of her other cookies!
The show-stopping Crunchy Chocolate-Chestnut Cake from Ivonne, aka Cream Puffs in Venice
Chestnut and Pear Tart from Dorie Greenspan's blog is another show-stopper. Can you tell I like chestnuts?


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Cinnamon Oat Scones


Is everyone having a nice weekend? Good. I can't believe Christmas is nearly here. Christmas on Tuesday works out well--four day weekend! I've already done most of the baking I planned on, and I've bought and wrapped all the presents. Nothing left to do but hang out and have fun.

So, if you're just hanging out like me, here's a great scone recipe for you. I made these a couple weeks ago right after I saw Anna's post. I think I've mentioned that I love scones, and I really love testing new recipes hoping to find that magic combination of basic scone ingredients that makes the perfect moist, buttery treat. When Anna called this the best oat scone ever and said she wouldn't be looking further for oat scone recipes, I was very excited to try it. I don't think she speaks those words lightly. If you need more convincing, it's a Cook's Illustrated recipe, so that means it was tested every which way in the pursuit of oat scone perfection.

If you like scones with oats, this is definitely the ultimate. I can't eat one of these for breakfast without getting up from my computer (I love eating and reading blogs on weekday mornings), finding Mike and exclaiming, "Best scones ever!"

I guess the picture looks pretty basic, but the scones are anything but. Without an insane amount of butter, they are incredibly buttery and moist. I'll also say they're on the sweet side, especially if you use the cinnamon chips. The toasted oats don't make them seem "healthy," but add another dimension of texture and nutty flavor. Seriously, they're melt-in-your-mouth good. The flavor of the oats is also a nice match for whole wheat pastry flour if you like making whole grain scones. I didn't use any white flour, so these awesome scones were also really nutritious.

If you don't have or don't like cinnamon chips, use any add-in you want. There are some suggestions in the recipe headnotes. My grocery store only sells cinnamon chips around the holidays with the seasonal stuff (I have no clue why they're a seasonal item), so if yours is the same way, pick some up and try them in these scones, as well as plenty of other things. King Arthur also sells mini cinnamon chips year round if you're desperate.

You can see Anna's version here. I included the recipe below for convenience, and because I tweaked a few things, like using whole wheat pastry flour. I also cut the amount of butter by a tablespoon just because I ran out of unsalted butter--for shame! I can't think of any more ways to say how yummy these scones are, so I'll just thank Anna for posting about them!

Cinnamon Oat Scones

Adapted from Cooks Illustrated and Cookie Madness
If you don’t have cinnamon chips, use another add-in like raisins, dried currants or chocolate chips. This recipe is a great base for all of them, and would also be good plain. You also might want to switch the cinnamon for ginger or 1 tablespoon of citrus zest. Note that you’ll be raising the oven temperature after toasting the oats.
Makes 8 large or 12 medium scones

1 1/2 cups "old fashioned" rolled oats (120 g)
1 1/2 cups white whole wheat or all-purpose flour (195 g)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 tsp cardamom (optional)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch chunks and chilled
1/2 cup half and half
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup cinnamon chips (120 g)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread the oats on a cookie sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring once, or until fragrant and lightly browned (keep an eye on these; they can over cook quickly). Set aside to cool.

Raise oven heat to 425 degrees F.

In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Pulse a few times to combine. Add butter chunks to flour mixture and pulse until mixture is the size of small peas.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the egg, half and half, and vanilla.

Add the flour mixture and the oats to cream mixture and stir until almost mixed. Add the cinnamon chips and continue mixing just until mixture comes together in a ball.

On a lightly floured surface, divide ball in half and shape each half into a thick disk. Roll each half into a 6 to 7-inch circle, about 1 inch thick. With a floured knife, cut each circle into 4 or 6 wedges, and place about 1 inch apart on a parchment lined baking sheet. Brush with scones with additional half and half. Bake 12 to 16 minutes, rotating pan halfway through, until scones are lightly browned on the bottom and cooked through.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My Favorite Thumbprint Cookies


Unlike Pecan Balls, I haven't seen a lot of thumbprint cookies in the blogosphere. Women's magazines, on the other hand, always seem to include one obligatory thumbprint in their collections of holiday cookie recipes. They usually look fairly uninspired, although they may be wonderful recipes. I'll never know because these are the only thumbprints I will ever make.

This recipe is another oldie but goodie from grandma. The original typewritten recipe that I have a photocopy of calls for all shortening. And this is from back when Crisco had plenty of trans-fat. When I was a kid, I think we made them with margarine, which was the good-health fat of choice back then. Now, I make them with delicious, organic unsalted butter (Organic Valley is my everyday butter of choice), and they taste as wonderful as ever.

I've mentioned how much I like soft, tender, nearly under-baked cookies, and that is how I like these. Thanks to the butter and brown sugar, they melt in your mouth. Still, a contrast of textures is important if you want a truly sophisticated cookie experience, so these thumbprints are rolled in finely chopped--almost ground--walnuts.

And, as with so many desserts, a sweet, simple frosting takes these cookies from great to really great. Jam in thumbprint cookies never did it for me. Why have jam when you can have actual icing? To each her own, I guess. If you happen to have ideas about thumbprints that are equally as strong as mine, I would love it if you tried the cookie part and added your filling of choice, whether it be chocolate, jam or candied fruit--just as long as you tell me all about it!

I'm submitting this post to Susan's Christmas Cookie round-up at Food Blogga. She's gathering cookie recipes from far and wide, so it might be a good place to go if you're still looking for cookie inspiration!

My Favorite Thumbprint Cookies
Makes about 3 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups (9 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 egg whites
1 1/4 cup walnuts, ground or very finely chopped
1 cup powdered sugar
2 to 4 tbs. milk
red and green food coloring

Preheat oven to 375 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. With an electric mixer, beat the butter, brown sugar and egg yolks at medium-high speed until thoroughly combined. Beat in vanilla. Stir in the flour and salt at very low speed or by hand.

Place the egg whites in a small bowl and spread the walnuts out in a shallow bowl or plate. Roll a spoonful of dough into a one-inch ball with your hands, quickly dip in egg white, roll in ground walnuts, shaking off any excess, and place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, spacing cookies about 1 1/2 inches apart on baking sheets.

Bake for 6 minutes, remove pans from oven and quickly make a deep thumbprint in the center of each cookie. Return pans to oven and bake for 7 minutes more, or until just barely beginning to brown on the bottom. If notice the indentation you made disappearing as the cookies bake, pull them out and press again. Cool on baking sheets for 3 minutes, then transfer to wire racks until cooled completely.

In each of two small bowls, mix 1/2 cup powdered sugar with 1 to 2 tablespoons milk. Add red food coloring to one bowl and green food coloring to the other. Stir well to combine and create a thick icing that slowly drizzles off your spoon. When cookies are completely cool, fill thumbprints with icing. If you want to freeze some of the cookies, allow icing to dry completely, 8 hours to overnight.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Holiday Baking and a Recipe for Pecan Balls


I love baking Christmas cookies. From what I've been seeing on so many other food blogs, I'm not the only one. This weekend I went into a highly organized frenzy of holiday baking.

All I did was make batches of cookie dough, watch sweet loaves of bread puff up out of their pans, and roll out individual little nut pies. Okay, I also went to a wine tasting on Friday, had a fun dinner out on Saturday and watched a football game on Sunday from the comfort of my sofa after the day's cookies were out of the oven.

It was all so much fun! This morning, I was wondering aloud why I go through so much work, especially when there aren't a ton of people around to eat my goodies (that's what freezers are for, right?). It's not because I need food to be happy (food makes me happy, but that's different) or because I want to relive childhood Christmases past (I wasn't a very child-like child, so that's not it). I just love to cook. And bake. Either way, I love recipes that challenge me somehow.

I do make a lot of family recipes this time of year because I want to make them my own--master them so I can then improve upon them--and enjoy them without thinking they don't taste quite the same as they did when I was 10. More than that, baking just tells me it's Christmas. It's a knee-jerk reaction sort of thing. Since I enjoy it so much, why not indulge?

All of the cookies in the photo happen to be things I ate as a kid, and I love them all. Today, I want to post the recipe for Pecan Balls (the ones that look like little snowballs). I've been seeing this cookie everywhere of late and no wonder--it's a Christmas classic. I poured over several recipes trying to find the ultimate version that would produce a very tender cookie with a nearly under-baked texture and without anything too fancy going on. In the end, I used a very old recipe from my mom that seems to be the classic version.

Newer recipes use more nuts, but I think one cup is plenty nutty. Sugar seems to be the most controversial ingredient. Cook's Illustrated has a recipe using superfine sugar (white sugar ground very fine), but they don't say if that produces a softer texture or not. Dorie Greenspan has a version in Baking with granulated sugar, but she seems to be a fan of crisp cookies. I will try these recipes eventually and tell you about any revelations they might bring. For now, I've got a simple, delicious cookie that is both tender and crumbly. Anna just posted a similar version here, and Jennifer made the Cook's Illustrated version with hazelnuts. More holiday goodies to come!

Pecan Balls
The recipe I used actually calls these tender little cookies Russian Tea Cakes (one of their many names), but my mom called them Pecan Balls, and I think that’s a more descriptive name anyway. You could substitute other nuts--I think walnuts or hazelnuts would work particularly well. I error on the side of under-baking these cookies because I like the centers to be a bit moist, as opposed to crumbly. A food processor comes in handy to chop the nuts, but be careful not to grind them to a powder. This recipe requires at least two hours of chilling time (for the dough, not you...hehe!).

Makes about 3 1/2 dozen

1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups (9 oz.) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped
Additional powdered sugar (about 1 1/2 cups) for rolling

With an electric mixer, blend the butter and 1/2 cup sugar at medium-high speed until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. Stir in the flour and salt just until combined. Stir in the pecans. Refrigerate for 2 to 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Roll dough into one-inch balls and place on prepared baking sheets (cookies will not spread much during baking). Bake for 12-14 minutes or until bottoms are just barely golden.

Sprinkle some powdered sugar on a rimmed baking sheet or a plate. Cool cookies on baking sheets for 2 to 3 minutes, then roll in powdered sugar and place on racks to cool. When cookies are completely cool, or just before serving, roll in powdered sugar again.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Cornbread Yeast Rolls

I absolutely love it when I try something new, not quite sure if it will work out, and end up with fantastic results. These cornbread yeast rolls are the perfect example. I say over and over how much I love cornbread. One of our favorite things to eat it with is super-slow roasted pork, shredded and topped with our favorite Memphis-style barbecue sauce.

The thing about my traditional skillet cornbread is that it's kinda crumbly. Doesn't really hold up as a sandwich bread, especially if you're filling it with luscious, spoon-tender pork smothered in sauce. After dealing with messy cornbread sandwiches one too many times, Mike had enough (I never really tried making a sandwich with cornbread in the first place, so I didn't much care). He asked if there was a recipe that existed somewhere in the wide world of food for cornbread that was better suited for sandwiches, but still deliciously corny.

I enthusiastically affirmed that such a thing does exist, since I've seen yeast cornbread recipes before, most recently here on a blog I read all the time. So, I set out to find a recipe that I could easily adapt to make big, sturdy sandwich rolls. I didn't have far to google before I found this recipe on FoodReference.com. I had no idea if it was reliable, but most of it made sense to me, and it contained all the ingredients I thought were needed to produce a tasty cornbread.

This bread is so delicious! The even crumb is fine and tender, yet sturdy enough that it doesn't turn to mush when it comes in contact with barbecue sauce and creamy coleslaw. Thanks to honey and plenty of corn in the dough, it's slightly sweet and full of corn flavor. Make no mistake, though--this does not have the cake-like texture of a quick bread--it's a sandwich roll through and through.

You can, in fact, bake it as two full-size loaves and slice it for sandwiches, but rolls give you more of that glossy, burnished crust to enjoy. The pork, by the way, is so easy to make, it barely requires a recipe.

Super-Slow Roasted Pork:
Season a 3-4 pound Boston butt pork roast (spice blends are handy for this), wrap it tightly in foil and place in a roasting pan. Roast at 275 degrees for 4 hours (or an hour per pound). You don't have to look at or even open the oven during cooking. Let it rest for at least 30 minutes, then effortlessly shred it up. You can't overcook it, and it's the finest pork roast you'll ever eat. We heard about this cooking method on the radio show (podcast actually), The Splendid Table, a few weeks ago and adapted this recipe on their website.

Cornbread Yeast Rolls
Adapted from this recipe on FoodReference.com
If you love cornbread, but want something different, try these rolls. The recipe is very friendly, so no special knowledge or tricks are required. I used my stand mixer, but I think you could make them by hand with a little elbow grease. When measuring your flour, lightly spoon it into measuring cups and level with a knife.

Makes 12 sandwich-sized rolls

1 cup warm water
1 tbs. sugar
1 (7 gram) packet active dry yeast
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour, divided
2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1 2/3 c. cornmeal
4 tbs. unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup honey
2 large eggs
1 (7 oz.) can corn, drained well
2 tbs. coarse cornmeal (optional)
1 egg, beaten, for egg wash

Combine the water and sugar in a bowl. Add the yeast and gently stir. Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes, or until yeast forms a foamy layer on top of water.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine 1 cup of the whole wheat pastry flour and 1 cup of the all-purpose flour. Add the yeast mixture and mix with the dough hook attachment on low speed until combined. Add the salt, cornmeal, melted butter, honey, eggs and corn. Continue mixing on medium-low speed until combined.

With the mixer running, add the remaining 1 cup of whole wheat flour and 1 cup of the all-purpose flour. Continue mixing until you have a slightly sticky dough that pulls away from the sides of bowl. If dough is too wet, add the remaining 1/3 cup of flour slowly until the dough holds together and pulls away from the bowl. I used nearly all of the flour. Let the mixer knead the dough for about 1 minute, then transfer dough to a large bowl, coated with olive oil. Turn the dough over once inside the bowl to coat it all over with oil. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then with a dish towel and leave it to rise in a warm place until roughly doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and sprinkle with coarse cornmeal, if using. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Knead for a few seconds, then divide into two pieces. You can stop here if you want to make two rustic loaves, or you can divide each piece into 6 balls to make rolls. Knead each ball once or twice and place on the prepared baking sheets with seam side down. Cover the rolls with a kitchen towel and leave them to rise a second time for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until they puff up noticeably. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Right before you put them in the oven, gently brush the rolls with the beaten egg to add a nice gloss to the finished rolls. Bake for 20 to 25, switching the positions of the baking sheets halfway through. Remove from oven when rolls are golden on top, browned on the bottom and sound hollow when tapped on the base. Cool on baking sheets for 5 minutes, then finish cooling on wire racks.


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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Pistachio-Black Currant Truffles

We have a new obsession. It's one thing to be obsessed with chocolate--you know, eating it and buying it. That's perfectly normal. Making chocolates--specifically making truffles--on the other hand, is a totally different beast.

Thanks to a book I bought a few months ago, Mike and I are in hardcore truffle-making mode. A simple, delicious truffle isn't necessarily a feat of culinary prowess, but we don't want to make simple truffles. We want silky smooth, exotically flavored ganache centers enrobed in thin, tempered chocolate shells. It's the tempering that has us slightly crazed.

Tempering chocolate (without any fancy equipment) means melting it, then lowering its temperature, then raising the temperature by just a few degrees to put it in a state of temper. When your chocolate arrives at this happy place, it will set quickly and remain solid at room temperature, have a smooth glossy appearance and a pleasing snap when you bite into it. You can dip truffles in untempered chocolate and keep them refrigerated, but they will start to melt almost instantly in your hand.

As Andrew Garrison Shotts explains in his very good book, Making Artisan Chocolates, different brands and types of chocolate come into temper at different temperatures. It's hardly an exact science, so the poor schmucks at home, like us, just have to keep experimenting, practicing and testing until we develop a sort of chocolate-tempering sixth sense. This sixth sense will be ours...oh yes, it will be ours.

We actually had stunning success with our first batch of truffles, half classic bittersweet and half with a chipotle-flavored bittersweet ganache. The funny thing is that we were sure our chocolate was NOT tempered, yet it set beautifully when we finally dipped the truffles. See the kind of craziness that we're dealing with here?

This past weekend, we got fancy and made these pistachio-coated truffles with bittersweet ganache centers flavored with Creme de Cassis, or blackcurrant liqueur. We think (we're not totally sure, mind you) that the white chocolate shells are tempered. They set quickly and have a bit of snap; maybe they are semi-tempered, if there is such a thing. However, we dipped some pretzels in the leftover white chocolate, and the coating of these pretzels is most definitely not tempered--it's quite melty to the touch. My theory is that the cold ganache centers brought the white chocolate into temper on contact. Who knows?

This weekend, we're going to test our tempering technique at least three times with the same kind of chocolate until we figure this out on a more definitive level. I have to admit, it's kind of fun. I love truffles with cool flavors like chiles, tea and curry, and they present a challenge to me as a cook. Really fine artisan chocolate is so expensive and often must be purchased online, so making my own is practical too.

I'm not giving you a recipe for these truffles because there's a lot more involved than I can explain in a blog post. If you want to make artisan chocolates of your own, I do recommend Shott's book--it explains the techniques from start to finish, offers a lot of creative recipes and encourages the reader to play around using Garrison's recipes as a starting point. If the whole tempering thing has zero appeal to you, you can still make great truffles. There's a recipe in today's Boston Globe (you may have to register online) for cardamom truffles that calls for the flavored ganache centers to be simply rolled in cocoa powder. And it's written by none other than Bea who writes one of your favorite blogs and mine, La Tartine Gourmande. Below, I've also included some links to other bloggers' posts on truffle making.

If you already dabble in chocolate-making, I want your help! What other books have you found useful in learning to make chocolate and perfecting your technique? I'd definitely like to do some more research. I'd love your tips too.

And finally, though this may come as a shock after that long rant about tempering, I wanted to post about these truffles in honor of another favorite blogger, Peabody of "Culinary Concoctions By Peabody." This queen of cookies and champion of cheesecakes is hosting a virtual housewarming party in honor of her beautiful new home. I'm "coming" to the party, and I'm bringing these truffles! I'm sure there will be no shortage of desserts, but I chose these truffles so you can set them aside until after the "guests" are gone and you're too exhausted to bake...as if you'd ever be too exhausted to do that! Congratulations on your house!

Truffle Bonanza from other Bloggers:

Hazelnut Nougat Truffles from What's For Lunch Honey?
Sea Salt Caramel and Chocolate Fudge Hearts from The Passionate Cook
The Black-On-Black Truffle from Veronica's Test Kitchen
Coffee Buttercream and Dulce de Leche Truffles from Tartelette
Liqueur Truffles from Jumbo Empanadas
Cinnamon, Salted Caramel, Ginger and Vanilla Truffles (that's 4 different flavors!) from Foodbeam
Wasabi Ginger Truffles from Dessert First
Bailey's Cream Truffles from Cook Sister
White Chocolate Truffles Infused with Pear Skins, Wildflower Honey and Nutmeg from Culinary Concoctions By Peabody

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Vegetable-Barley Soup with Poached Egg


In my last post, I mentioned that we have been into healthy, comforting meals in the hopes of balancing out the holiday decadence. This is one of those recipes. Upon looking at the ingredients and method, you'll see there's nothing exotic here--but wait, the simplicity is deceptive.

This delicious soup is truly greater than the sum of its parts. It can be made effortlessly any night of the week. Once you've chopped onion and garlic, sauteed them along with some mushrooms and relaxed while the barley cooks in just 15 minutes, you'll wonder if you forgot something--it's just too easy, you'll say.

After you stir in some fresh spinach at the end and ladle the hot soup into bowls, it's time for the big finish--crowning each portion with a gently poached egg. Cook the eggs for a mere two minutes so the yolks remain soft and creamy enough to add a totally luscious quality to your soup. Honestly, this is unexpectedly good even without a poached egg, but with it--you'll want to eat this every night.


Now you have the perfect quick, satisfying meal for the crazy weeknights ahead when you don't want something too heavy, but you don't want to feel in the least bit deprived. It came from the November issue of Gourmet by the way, which also provided recipes for this beautiful Cranberry Crostata and another quick dinner we really liked (but didn't put on the blog), Sauteed Calamari with Bacon and Lemon Quinoa.

So, have you started doing any holiday baking yet? I did today--so much good stuff to blog about, I can't wait! We got our Christmas tree too. I love decorating it and going through all my ornaments, some that I've had since I was a baby. And I officially know it's the holiday season because Mike made his hot cider-rum drink with cinnamon--I could knock those back all day! So what are everyone else's favorite December traditions, whether you celebrate Christmas or not?

Vegetable-Barley Soup with Poached Egg
Adapted from Gourmet magazine, November 2007

Serves 4 as main course

1 tbs. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
8 oz. mushrooms, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 tsp. dried thyme
pinch dried marjoram (optional)
1 (14 1/2 oz.) can diced fire-roasted tomatoes (such as Muir Glen)
1 qt. vegetable broth (such as Swanson’s Organic)
1 cup quick-cooking barley
6 oz. spinach leaves
1 tbs. white vinegar
4 large eggs

Add the olive oil to a large saucepan and heat to medium. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and cook until mushrooms are soft and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, thyme and marjoram and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes more.

Add the tomatoes and vegetable broth; raise heat and bring to a boil. Add the barley, season with 1/2 tsp. salt and ground pepper to taste; cover the pot and reduce heat to maintain a brisk simmer. Cook for 10-15 minutes, or until barley is tender.

Meanwhile, fill a large skillet with water, about 1 1/2 inches deep. Bring to a brisk simmer over medium heat. Add the vinegar. As soon as the soup is finished, you want this skillet to be ready for the eggs.

When barley is tender, stir the spinach into the soup and cook for 1 minute. Check for seasoning and add additional salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle soup into shallow bowls, and immediately add the eggs to the poaching water by cracking the eggs, one at a time, into a ramekin or small bowl and gently tipping each one into the poaching water. Cook for 2 minutes and transfer the eggs directly into each soup bowl using a slotted spoon. Serve right away.

If you want to check out the round-up of posts for November's Sugar High Friday where the theme was beta-carotene, here's part 1 and part 2. Look for my All-In-One Holiday Bundt Cake among the delicious entries.