Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Violent Gingerbread Men

What happens when you let little boys (and not-so-little guys) decorate the gingerbread men...

It was a bloody mess...

People were losing limbs left and right...

This, apparently, is the family afflicted by the ravages of war...

I like to keep my gingerbread men neat and tidy. :-)

Although, I have to admit...the one in the first pic losing his leg was mine. :-p

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bûche-Do-Not-Eat : Daring Bakers' Challenge

This month's challenge is brought to us by the adventurous Hilda from Saffron and Blueberry and Marion from Il en Faut Peu Pour Ettre Heureux. They have chosen a French Yule Log by Flore from Florilege Gourmand.

Intimidation hardly suffices to describe how I felt upon first glance at the recipe for my first Daring Bakers’ Challenge. Forget the fact there were six separate pieces to create -- not one of the six elements had components I ever attempted before in my life. Yes, I was intimidated; indeed, I was downright frightened by the prospect of concocting this gourmet French dessert. And having spent a bit of time in France, I knew the taste of true French entremets. Was it possible for me to truly replicate the depth of flavor of a delicious, gourmet Bûche du Noël?

I felt like a couch potato about to commence a decathlon.

The Bûche du Noël is a rich, layered frozen cake composed from bottom to top of dacquoise, ganache, crème brulée, and crisp with a mousse layered in between these elements, and, finally, adorned with a glossy icing. I chose the almond dacquoise, the dark chocolate ganache, vanilla crème brulée, the coconut/white chocolate crisp, dark chocolate mousse and dark chocolate icing to create my bûche. (Perhaps I overdid it in the dark chocolate department but I tend to prefer it to the milk and white chocolates…)

The dark chocolate mousse nearly had me pulling my hair out. I had never used gelatin in a recipe before. I had no comprehension of how this stuff works. The recipe said to soften the gelatin in a bit of water as one mixed the other ingredients together. I placed the gelatin in, I think, about 2 tablespoons of water. It turned into a harden mass of gel like those globs people put in their shoes for support. Not quite the right consistency for mixing with liquid ingredients.

The mousse also called for a pate a bombe—whipped egg yolks. The recipe said to whip them until they were nearly white, but I was extremely concerned with just how white was ‘nearly white.’ Knowing that the texture of whipped egg whites for a meringue can make or break the recipe, I was nervous that I was about to ruin my mousse with this pate a bombe I was about to drop into the mixture. Just the name of it sounds like a method of destruction; without control, the results could be disastrous.

Turns out my pate a bombe went off without a hitch. It was that finicky gelatin that was giving me all the trouble. I softened another couple packets of it in about a cup of water this time, allowing it to sit for only about 10 minutes. It easily mixed into the mousse this time around. I thought I was in the clear. But after I placed it in the fridge for a few hours while I worked on other pieces, the gelatin hardened the mousse so much it was nearly impossible to work with to fill the bûche. Grr.

The almond dacquoise nearly didn’t happen when the first store I went to offered a one pound bag of almond meal for nearly 10 dollars. No way was I going to spend that much on ground almonds! By golly, I would ground them myself rather than pay that much! Luckily, though, I found some at Trader Joe’s for only $4. That price agreed a bit more with my pocketbook. I had some trouble with my egg whites for this element and had to throw out the first batch I attempted to whip, but otherwise it wasn’t too horribly troublesome to make. My difficulty came when I attempted to remove it from the wax paper. It was very fond of adhering to it. A little nudging finally got it unstuck. It is very important to let this cool completely before trying to remove it. I believe my hastiness to pull it off was a major source of my frustration.

For the crème brulee, the recipe insisted on the necessity of a water bath for cooking the custard. But after not cooking for over an hour in the oven, I removed the water and completed the process after another hour. One of two things was the problem: the temperature of the oven called for was incorrect or the water bath hindered the cooking process, at least at that temperature.

The crisp layer called for crushed gavottes, a type of light French cookie. I was supposed to thinly spread the batter on the bottom of the pan. Again, ‘thin’ is a relative term, and I’m not sure that it was thin enough. I felt the pieces of cookie were rather thick and did not break well into pieces small enough for the crisp. It was kind of chunky and did not stick together well with the white chocolate and coconut when I tried to remove it from the wax paper to place it into the bûche. I ended up breaking pieces into the mousse instead of having a nice, single layer.

The easiest of the six elements was the dark chocolate ganache (no photo, it happened so quickly!). Unfortunately, it was the second to last element I made so I was already burned out from the other four and hesitant to finish the task. I nearly gave up on the bûche at this point but something (or someone ;-)) helped push me through to the end.

The icing was another gelatin nightmare—it hardened before I was able to spread it over the cake. I’m not sure I will ever attempt to make something with gelatin again. It does not agree with me in the least.

Overall, this project was probably the least enjoyable of all my baking experiences thus far. It was very difficult going into the project without knowledge of many of the elements involved. It certainly seemed it was going to be a Bûche-Do-Not-Eat, as Ryan so lovingly referred to it. But, I may just have to try this again some time so that I can apply all those invaluable lessons I learned from my mistakes.

The taste of the buche was overwhelming rich. It should be enjoyed in small doses, not the large American-size we are all so accustomed to. It will leave you with a tummy ache, otherwise. Give it a try...if you dare.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pita Pizzas

Want a quick, easy, healthy way to eat pizza? Throw together a pita pizza!

My brother and I made these for dinner tonight. We used pesto sauce, a little mozarella, sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, artichoke hearts, and chopped chicken sausage. (I also added a little goat cheese to mine for an extra zing of flavor!)
All this meal takes is a package of pitas and whatever toppings your heart so desires. (I'm thinking of trying my hand at a dessert one a little later.)
This is the perfect way to serve up individualized portions to the picky eaters in your household.

Each one can be as unique as a snowflake....

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cooking with the Philosophers

One of the reasons I become so easily frustrated with many of the modern philosophers is that they are all merely idealists. When does their thought ever bring us down to a pragmatic, human level? It is all about 'pie-in-the-sky' egos/ids, duality of thesis/antithesis, categorical imperatives, etc. Enlighten me with some useful information I can practically employ in my every day life.

Recently, my mother gave me a cookbook, The Philosopher's Kitchen by Francine Segan, brimming with words of wisdom concerning the culinary exploits of the ancient philosophers and their comrades. While testing out various food elements, the ancient philosophers observed and frequently took notes, some of which still exist today, much to my great elation. Back when philosophy was still a science, when it still had a foundation in observable nature, these lovers of wisdom would remark on even the simplest of life experiences -- enjoyment of food being one of them.

This is the kind of philosophy that I can appreciate.

An African chicken dish in the book is one of my favorites. It combines cloves, cinnamon, allspice, coriander and cumin together in a white wine sauce with arugula and dates. The flavor is unique and vivacious.

The other night, thirsting for a bit of adventure, I attempted a pork loin stuffed with apples and leeks, then wrapped in prosciutto. (It actually called for pancetta but there was none to be found at the store.) It was seasoned with cumin, coriander and black pepper in a honeyed cider vinegar sauce.

I had never 'butterflied' a cut of meat before, but a quick googling of the process cleared up any confusion (although I had already accomplished it before I knew the answer....yes, I am a bit anxious and impatient at times). For those of you who are still in the dark about this technique, it is really quite simple. Slice into the meat about halfway through, peeling back a bit of its thickness, and lay it out flat. Stuff your meat with your favorite filling, roll it up, tie it or toothpick it together, and viola!... you have successfully butterflied and prepared your meat for cookin'!

This dish was originally named after a good friend of Cicero and Julius Caesar, Gaius Matius--one of history's earliest great food 'bloggers!'

Prosit, Matius!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fro Yo

The newest trend in hang-out haunts are self-service yogurt bars. (Watch out: coffee shops may soon be obsolete!) These tiny shops nestled in inconspicuous spots are ideal places to simply drop in for a quick (healthy!) snack with friends. They cater to the persnickity, do-it-yourself attitude that runs deep in most of us. The choice is entirely yours.

One of my favorites in the area is Yogurtagogo. I stumbled across this place with Ryan one night as we were meandering downtown. The starkness of the white interior was alluring from the outside. As we entered through the door, we were confronted with some rather large cups in which to place our selection of flavors dispensed from the machines on the wall. The flavors ranged from plain vanilla to a zany pomegranate raspberry. They even had rotational flavors such as pumpkin and eggnog to delight one's tastebuds with the flavors of the season. It was possible to try each flavor in tiny paper cups they provided for our testing pleasure before selecting one, two (or all!) the variations to place in our personal vessels of sweetness.

After accomplishing the difficult task of choosing a yogurt flavor, we were then confronted with about 50 choices of toppings to sprinkle atop. There was fresh fruit, cereals, nuts, mochi, candy...the possibilities were nearly endless!

At the end, they place your yogurt creation on a scale and you pay by the ounce of what you have accumulated in your bowl. It seems much more reasonable to me than paying a flat rate for a large bowl, as you would at most ice cream/frozen yogurt shops, and, then, often end up eating only half of it...or on the flip side, wanting more! This way you purchase what you want to eat. It's your own fault if you overestimate your indulgence! ;-)

Best of all, the yogurt is nearly guilt-free, as it contains healthy yogurt cultures and very low calories!

The last visit I made was with my friend, Catherine. We didn't think we were that hungry after lunching on the jumbo California crepes at Crepeville. But, after whetting our appetites with a few samples, we had no trouble filling our bowls to the top (nor finishing them).

I chose the raspberry pomegranate yogurt, topped with fresh strawberries and bananas with a sprinkle of coconut. She chose a mixture of the raspberry pomegranate and vanilla yogurt with juicy strawberries, kiwi, and blackberries.

They have this handy, little punch-card they give you after your first visit, and once you have purchased ten bowls of your own unique concoctions, the eleventh is on them! I'm steadily working towards my free yogurt. :o)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Banana Bread Cookies

A word to the wise: do not attempt new recipes when you are sick and can't smell or taste a darned thing.

Although there were no major pitfalls, fine-tuning the batter yesterday would have been much more precise if my olfactory organs had been working at full capacity. Whipping together this fresh cookie, I was having trouble determining exactly what needed to be done to my batter. I sensed the need for vanilla after testing out one from the oven, but the only major (minor, really) problem with them at the end was a bit too much flour. But no worries...that was minced in the final written product.

After falling head over heels with a trail mix concoction of pecans, banana chips and chocolate bits I had composed at the Whole Foods trail mix bar the other day, I attempted to conceive of a bakery good I could create containing these delicious morsels. A loaf? A cookie? Decisions, decisions...

Why not have the best of both worlds?

So I introduce to you the chewy Banana Bread Cookie. Enjoy it with a glass of milk, a cup of tea, or a warm mug of hot chocolate. A bit of a break-away from the standard seasonal fare of gingerbread and sugar cookies, but it is good to divert your senses so they don't become too accustomed to the norm. ;-)

Banana Bread Cookies
3 bananas

1/3 c. applesauce
1/4 c. butter, melted
3/4 c. brown sugar

1 egg
1 t. vanilla
2 1/4 c. flour

1 1/2 t. cinnamon

1/2 t. salt

2 t. baking powder

1/4 t. nutmeg
1/3 c. milk
3/4 c. pecans

1 c. dark chocolate chunks or chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Mash bananas in a large bowl. Stir in applesauce, butter and brown sugar, then egg and vanilla. Mix well. In separate bowl, mix together dry ingredients
. Add dry to wet ingredients in 3 installments with milk. Fold in pecans and chocolate. (Don't overmix or dough will become stiff.)
Place on greased cookie sheet in heaping tablespoons. Bake 15-18 minutes, until golden brown.
Place on wire rack to cool.

If desired, add a glaze of:

3 T. butter, melted
1/3 c. powdered sugar
1 T. milk
1 t. vanilla extract

Mix together with a whisk in a bowl. Drizzle over warm cookies.

In order to set the glaze, I placed the cookies in the freezer for half an hour. If you want to eat your cookies warm, this isn't the best idea, but they are tasty
froid ou chaud.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Happy Feast of St. Nicholas!

Today we are celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas...the guy who became Santa Claus! When I was little we would watch a video that described how the bishop's accoutrement was transformed into the trappings of the modern-day Santa Claus. The custom of gift-giving comes from this holy man who would leave surprise gifts especially for those in dire need.

In northern European countries, December 6th is a day rich with traditions memorializing this ancient bishop of Myra (in modern day Turkey). In Germany, for example, children leave their shoes out overnight in hopes of finding a treat or two nestled inside when they rise in the morning. St. Nicholas is often accompanied by Black Peter who leaves switches or lumps of coal for the bad children.

My senior year of college I created treat packages with some friends which we delivered to professors' houses for their children. We dressed up one of my friends as St. Nicholas, who regaled the children with his history. Another was Black Peter, who frightened several of the youngin's. The remainder of us dressed in medieval finery and serenaded the families with Christmas carols.

I attempted to carry on this tradition last year with my youth group. We baked dozens of cookies, then loaded in vans to deliver carols and treats to the children of the parish. The last house we visited surprised us with some hot cider and cookies of our own....

This year I won't be traipsing over the countryside with a basket of goodies, but I felt it necessary to do something in honor of this wonderful feast day. Last night, I made a batch of speculaas cookies. Unfortunately, I don't have proper cookie molds so they are trees and stars. But they taste just as scrumptious as ever.

I think I'll deliver a few dozen to my unsuspecting colleagues at work this afternoon.... ;-)

from St. Nicholas Day website

1 c. sweet cream butter, room temperature

2 c. b
rown sugar
2 eg
grated rind of one lemon

2 t. cinnamon

1 t. nutmeg

1/2 t. cloves

1/8 t.
ground ginger
1/8 t. cardamom

1/8 t. salt

4 c. flour

1 t. baking powder

Mix together the
butter and sugar in a large bowl until well-blended. Add eggs and lemon zest. In separate bowl, mix together all the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in increments. Stir after each addition. After last, bring together completely with your hands. Wrap in wax paper and place in the fridge for a couple hours. You can speed up the process by placing it in the freezer for 20 min. or so.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Roll out the dough on a floured surface and cut out with your favorite holiday shapes. If you have the tra
ditional German cookie molds, by all means, use them. The cookies will need to thicker when rolled out, however, in order to get a decent imprint.

Bake until gol
den brown, about 10 minutes. Adjust baking time depending on how chewy/crunchy you want your cookies. Additional times means crunchier cookies.

You can decorate them with a bit of powdered sugar, water and food coloring mixed together, if you desire.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Cup of Tea

The other day, a package arrived for me in the mail....

There are fewer things in life that delight me more than receiving mail...and I got a package, to boot! :-)
My dear friends from college, Emma and Lizzie, had been visiting together over the week and had thoughtfully sent off a little gift to me they had found while perusing an antique dish shop.

The shop is nearby Emma's house. She took me to visit it when I was there over Christmas break a few years ago. I remember picking out a tea cup for Lizzie at the time. It seems this is the beginning of a new tradition....

I love this cup! It is covered in little blue 'ermine,' the French Breton symbol; although, I believe, the tea cup is British Spode's. I can't wait to sip a warm cup from this delightful dish!

Back in college, Emma, Lizzie and I would frequently have afternoon tea together in attempt to break away from the bustle of the day for a few moments to enjoy each others' company, catch up on life and sip a refreshing brew. Usually, we would also pass around some sort of teatime treat we had whipped up in the kitchen or discovered on one of our excursions. We would normally convene in their room, wonderfully situated on the west side of the building with large windows that let in the waning daylight. It is a custom I sorely miss from our 'carefree' days....

Speaking of teas, I must put in a plug for Tazo's newest holiday tea: JOY. It is a combination of black, green, and oolong teas, described on the box as "Rare Darjeelings and Formosa Oolongs are paired with light-bodied, fragrant Nuwara Eliya teas from Ceylon. Yunnan teas from the high plateaus of Southern China and Southern India Nilgiris add texture and complexity." As Ryan put it, 'It is like party in your mouth!'...although, I would argue a rather mellow one. ;-) The flavors of the different varieties come together in perfect harmony and leave you feeling warm and satisfied. Although I do love my cinnamon, it is nice to have a holiday tea that is not focused entirely on spices.