Double whammy

Still trying to perfect my techniques, I whipped up a fairly labor-intensive dinner last night of homemade pasta AND more macarons. Glutton for punishment? Nah. I’m feeling more and more comfortable with both endeavors and won’t rest until I’ve nailed them.

First up, more macarons. Chocolate, to be exact. A pretty easy adaptation; you merely add a little cocoa powder to the powdered sugar and almonds. Trying to streamline, I decided to experiment by cutting a few corners to see if they’d make a difference. First of all, I decided not to sweat the sifting. I just stirred the almonds, powdered sugar and cocoa together as thoroughly as I could and hoped for the best. Next, I used a Baggie for my piping as opposed to my pastry bag (which is a bitch to clean after use). When I was done, I just popped the Baggie in the trash can and that was that. Two big time-savers right off the bat!

Recipes I’ve consulted offer varying opinions about how long to bake macarons and at what temperature. My last lemon batch was tasty, but almost a little too chewy, so I left my chocolate macarons in the oven a little longer than I have my prior two attempts. Around 16-17 minutes instead of the usual 12-13. In the meantime, I simply melted chocolate chips with Half and Half in the microwave and stirred in a tiny bit of butter to make a quick ganache filling.

Final results? The cookies looked great. They smelled great. They tasted great, EXCEPT, they were overbaked. Way too crunchy without a hint of their trademark chewiness. Hmph. Apparently 16-17 minutes is too long – live and learn. If it wasn’t for that minor flaw, this might have been my best batch yet! The other shortcuts I took didn’t seem to affect the outcome at all. Good to know. One more time, and I think I’ll have it sorted.

overbaked chocolate macarons

For our entree, I pulled out the new pasta machine again and rolled out a couple mounds of dough. It still boggles my mind that all you have to do is knead a few eggs into some flour and bam – noodles. I rolled through the dough into long, fragile sheets and laid them out to dry while hubby helped me concoct a quick bolognese sauce with Italian sausage (the Marsh butcher counter is the best place in town for bulk Italian sausage, IMHO). I’m more a sweet sausage fan, but hubby likes it spicy, so we blended a pound of each. The results – delicious, with a nice but not overpowering kick of heat.

We boiled the pasta briefly to soften. In retrospect, it might have been smart to cut the pasta to size before boiling it – the pasta expanded as it cooked, and we had a hell of time trying to fish the sheets out of the scalding water without ripping them and/or hard-boiling our fingers in the process.

Finally, I got the lasagna assembled and threw it in the oven for about 30 minutes. Our lovely neighbors agreed to join us as taste testers. At long last, the oven buzzer rang and I delivered the steaming dish of bubbly cheesy goodness to the table, along with a bowl of quick-boiled green beans and slices of the French bread our neighbors had contributed.

homemade lasagna with fresh noodles

The lasagna was, well, it was fantastic. The fresh noodles are labor intensive to create, but they make such a HUGE difference – the texture was light and simply melted in my mouth, not a trace of the chewiness that I hate. And the sauce was awesome. I have to admit, hubby made a great call with adding in a bit of the hot sausage for punch. It was excellent. (AND he washed the entire mountain of dishes my efforts produced. Bless him. He’s a keeper.) Even the toddler scarfed down some of the leftover noodle “rags” with a little bit of sauce and some cheese on top.

All in all, a great meal shared with great friends. What more could a person want?

Visions of sugarplums

The newly minted Top Chef Just Desserts season has kicked my sweet tooth into overdrive. (What’s with all the drama, by the way? An open plea to Top Chef producers – PLEASE just stick to the food. Leave the whining, bitching and bipolar episodes to Hell’s Kitchen. I expected more a little more from you. Here’s hoping you’ll redeem yourself with Top Chef All Stars…)

The holidays demand sweets. That’s just all there is to it. When I was growing up, one of the events I most looked forward to was our church’s annual holiday tasting party. Each year on the first Sunday evening of advent, the church played host to a huge seasonal program. Following the big show, the tasting party would take over the basement to offer table upon table laden with every imaginative use of sugar one could fathom. All created by the loving hands of the church ladies and you know as well as I do, no one cooks like a church lady.

Here how’s it worked:  you’d grab a paper plate and troll the aisles, loading up with anything that struck your fancy. Cookies, brownies, buckeyes, cupcakes, Rice Krispies treats, bars, chocolate-covered whatever, sweet Chex mix, corn flake wreaths, peanut butter fudge, butterscotch chow mein noodle haystacks… good grief. It’s enough to send me into sugar shock just thinking about it. Looking back, I’m not sure how it was successfully managed, but it was. I don’t think actual fights broke out over the last item on any given plate, but the potential was definitely there. I do seem to remember an awful lot of hyper children running around that basement.

Every year around the first of December, I start sorting through my cookie recipes, intending to recreate some old favorites and maybe try a few new ones. I even picked up a jar of red and green holiday sanding sugar at Michael’s the other day in anticipation of this year’s baking extravaganza.

I’d like to try my hand at sugar cookies and gingerbread men, but I’ve traditionally not had good luck with these kinds of dough. In fact, the last time I attempted to make gingerbread men, I recall spending an entire afternoon painstakingly mixing, rolling, cutting, decorating and baking them, only to bite into one and discover that it tasted like nothing but straight-up flour. Bleh.

To me, nothing says Christmas like the winning combination of chocolate and mint. (It even brings back fond memories of mixing up mugs of peppermint schnapps-spiked hot chocolate in my IU dorm freshman year.) I’ve got a wickedly decadent recipe for crème de menthe brownies, and another for double chocolate chip cookies with crushed candy canes that I plan on dusting off within the next week or so.

Creme de menthe brownies

I’m all for collecting other ideas and suggestions. If you’ve got a favorite cookie recipe, holiday or otherwise, feel free to post as a comment below. In the meantime, here’s a recipe I made several times last year to much acclaim. It’s super easy, doesn’t require many ingredients to fuss with, and is consistently delicious. Enjoy – and bring on the sweet eats!

Cookies ‘n creme fudge

3 (6 ounce) packages white chocolate baking squares

1 (14 ounce) can EAGLE BRAND® Sweetened Condensed Milk

1/8 teaspoon salt

3 cups crushed Oreos (it could be fun to experiment with other cookies as well)

In a heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the white chocolate squares, sweetened condensed milk and salt. Remove from heat and stir in crushed cookies.

Spread evenly into a wax paper-lined 8-inch square pan. Chill 2 hours or until firm.

Turn fudge out onto a cutting board; peel off the wax paper and cut into squares. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

Home sweet home

Have spent the past few days reacclimating to the old homestead, and fighting off a pesky cold/flu bug that’s infiltrated my sinuses. Funny that we’ve been on the go in Europe for three weeks, out and about in cold rainy weather, navigating transatlantic flights, and when do I get sick? Only after I get back to the comfort and safety of my own home. Hmph.

I’m delighted to be back in my own kitchen and working again with my own knives, utensils and pots/pans; stocking groceries in my own roomy stainless steel fridge; and sitting down to eat at my own massive dining table. Needing a culinary break from continental fare, the first few meals I made this week were as decidedly anti-French/Italian/German as I could think up — chicken curry with sweet potatoes and chickpeas, Asian crusted tilapia with Thai peanut noodles (thanks for the recipe, Gillian!), and fluffy chocolate chip buttermilk pancakes. We did break down and order a quattro formaggio from Bazbeaux one night when I didn’t feel up to cooking, but American pizza is really nothing like true Italian pizza anyway.

Yesterday was the granddaddy of all American meals, the most comfortable of all comfort foods — Thanksgiving dinner. My family was sort of scattered to the winds this year and since my closest unit members and I are still recovering from our trip (did I mention I’ve been up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. every day this week?), we decided to play it very low key. Fortunately, our lovely friends/neighbors down the street invited us over. I was all prepared to cook a turkey breast with some scaled-down fixings at home, but feeling as under the weather as I do, was secretly thrilled not to for once.

Thanksgiving is always a bittersweet holiday for me, resurrecting memories of all the years I spent alongside my mom in the kitchen as she prepared a huge spread of her tried-and-true classics. Always the same stuffing recipe, always the scalloped corn casserole, always the cranberry ice that made my teeth ache. I was living in Los Angeles the last Thanksgiving my mom was alive, and it was the first year I didn’t make it home for the holiday. After a very nice dinner at my Uncle Dave’s house in Camarillo just northwest of L.A., I remember stealing a few moments to myself in a darkened bedroom to cry, somehow knowing that the unquestionable family tradition I’d enjoyed for 31 years was changing and would never be the same again.

And it hasn’t. The year my mom died, we went out to eat for Thanksgiving for the first time ever. It felt like a sacrilege, but the thought of even attempting to recreate her traditions in her kitchen without her there was more than I could bear. I don’t remember much about our dinner that year, other than the food seemed bland and tasteless and there was a gaping hole at the table where my mom should have been.

That was eight years ago. Time does heal wounds, but never eliminates them entirely. I’ll always think of my mom on Thanksgiving day, bustling around the kitchen like a fearless conductor of her own culinary symphony. I have cooked my own Thanksgiving dinners since then. One year, the “fresh” turkey I’d purchased the night before turned out to be completely frozen solid in the middle when I went to put it in the oven. Certain side dishes have met with varying degrees of success. I’ve learned some valuable trial-and-error lessons along the way. I know some people get totally flustered about the idea of cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, but at this point, preparing the big meal doesn’t freak me out. I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to turkey day, so I usually try to serve a combination of old favorites and maybe one or two new recipes thrown in to keep things fresh.

This year, though, Ron and Janet saved me the trouble, bless them. Their spread was a fabulous collection of all the best stuff — perfectly roasted turkey, creamy mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes with yummy melty marshmallows on top, green bean casserole (which I always vow needs to be made much more often than just once a year), and a savory wild rice with mushrooms. As Janet so accurately summed up, Thanksgiving is all about the starches. True dat! I contributed a stuffing I made with apples, onions, celery, sage and rosemary (hubby already said he wasn’t going to eat any, so I made it to please myself!); and a bowl of vanilla orange cranberry sauce. All in all, it was a delicious and satisfying dinner shared with good friends. What more could a person ask for? I was truly thankful.

By the way, best use of Thanksgiving leftovers in my book? White meat turkey sandwich on white bread with Miracle Whip, a layer of stuffing and some cranberry sauce. Followed up by a piece of pumpkin pie doused with Cool Whip. Yeah, baby. Now you’re talking.

My thoughts are already turning ahead to the holidays. So many recipes, so little time. I’m already mentally running through lists of cookies I want to make, roasts I can put in the crockpot on the cold nights ahead, my mom’s brandy slush recipe, and a slew of seasonal side dishes. Every year, I have big plans to invite friends over for dinners, a cookie swap, maybe a brunch, and before I know it, Christmas has come and gone. I vow this year not to get so wrapped up in the shopping and stresses of the holiday season that I forget to just relax and spend some time with the people I care about. Spontaneous stolen moments are way better than no moments at all.

Today, we hope to venture out to get our Christmas tree while my adorable stepson is here to help decorate. Perhaps we’ll even follow up our tree-decorating efforts with some cookies and homemade hot chocolate… ah. I know many people loathe the long, cold winter, but I look at it as an opportunity to cuddle up with the ones you love and enjoy a bunch of heart- and tummy-warming dishes that don’t taste nearly as good any other time of year.

To that end… my nose is running again. I think it’s time for a cup of tea and my favorite afghan. Don’t forget to count your blessings.

Chips off the old block

I’m in a chocolate-chip cookie phase. Been experimenting with recipes this year to find the most perfectly delicious cookie I can make. I’ve even entered one in an online cookie contest!

I don’t like tough, crispy or chewy chocolate chip cookies. I like ’em soft, like when they first come out of the oven and the chips are all melty and gooey. Messy cookie = good cookie. I think it comes down to a matter of baking them for precisely the right amount of time, best I can tell.

I found a recipe for the “perfect chocolate chip cookie,” or something like that, in my America’s Test Kitchen magazine and decided to give it a try. Now, I enjoy watching America’s Test Kitchen on TV, but in my view, they sometimes make mountains out of molehills. I can appreciate that they are trying to create the best recipe they can, but they make things harder than they have to be. After making their chocolate chip cookies, and using about five additional steps than I normally would, I found the cookies to be disappointingly crunchy, even after the recipe promised they would be lovely and soft.

What I HAVE found that makes a difference, in addition to making sure not to overbake, is the addition of a simple ingredient – a box of instant pudding mix. Something about the pudding keeps the cookies more moist and lends a rich, luxurious consistency to the batter.

After quite a bit of experimentation, here are two recipes I’ve come up with that I really like. Both make about three dozen small cookies, or 18-20 big-scoop cookies. I use an ice cream scoop to measure out the dough to ensure even sizes. Make sure to store them in an airtight container to preserve the freshness.

Cherry double-chocolate chip cookies

Ingredients:
1 3/4 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
1/2 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter or margarine (softened)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 (4 ounce) package instant pudding, chocolate flavor
2 large eggs
1 (12 ounce) package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup dried cherries

Directions:
Preheat oven to 375°.

Reconstitute the dried cherries by placing them into a small bowl and covering them with boiling water. Let sit for about five minutes, then drain them well and give them a rough chop. If you like a chewier cookie, you can leave them dried and simply rough chop them as is.

Sift flour and cocoa with baking soda and salt into a bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugars and beat until smooth and creamy. Beat in the eggs, vanilla and pudding mix. Let the batter rest for 5 minutes, then beat again. Gradually add flour mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips and cherries.

Using a small or large ice cream scoop, scoop the dough into balls place two or three inches apart onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten the tops slightly. If you like, dust the tops with a little sanding sugar for a pretty finished appearance.

Bake for 9-10 minutes for small cookies, 13-14 minutes for large. Let cool on a rack.

Pistachio chocolate chip cookies

Ingredients:
2 1/4 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter or margarine (softened)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 (4 ounce) package instant pudding, pistachio flavor
2 large eggs
1 (12 ounce) package milk chocolate chips
1 cup shelled pistachios, roughly chopped

Directions:
Preheat oven to 375°.

Sift flour with baking soda and salt in a bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine butter, sugars and pudding mix. Beat until smooth and creamy. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Let rest for 5 minutes, then beat again. Gradually add flour mixture. Stir in chips and nuts.

Using a small or large ice cream scoop, scoop the dough into balls place two or three inches apart onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Flatten the tops slightly.

Bake at 375° for 9-10 minutes for small cookies, 12-13 minutes for large cookies. Cool on a rack.