Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas Cookies!

Internet friends, what is more Christmasy that baking a whole bunch of cookies on a cold day with family? The only thing I can think of it going to the thrift store. Seriously, if you're not in the Christmas spirit yet, go to your local thrift store and buy some cheap decorations and ornaments. Memories already built in!

Also! Here's me and my nephew Luke! He slept and pooped and generally kept spirits high while Sharon, Sara and I were baking. Sharon is my fiancé Nate's mom, Sara is Nate's brother Jake's wife (so my future sister-in-law), and Luke is Jake and Sara's fat little baby.

I usually don't give straight up recipes on this blog since it's all about deviating and experimenting, but when it comes to Christmas cookies... some things you just don't mess with. With permission, I'm giving out secret family recipes - so show some respect! Do it right! It's worth it.

But don't worry, I did screw around with some chocolate chip cookies at the end. Mmm. Experimentation... Mmm...


Peanut Butter Blossoms

Sara is a pro at peanut butter blossoms. And she looked cute the whole time. These are a classic. Sift together:
  • 1 3/4 cup flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
Then cream together:
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
Then add
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 egg
and then mix in the dry ingredients. Make one to 1 1/2 balls and roll them in sugar. Bake at 355 for 10 minutes. Take them out and press in some chocolate swirls. My friend Margaret uses Hershey's Kisses in her peanut butter blossoms, but Rowan tradition is Brach's swirly chocolate stars. Once you press them into the balls, bake two to five extra minutes.

These are so freaking good fresh out of the oven so that the chocolate is melty. mmm.

Spritz Cookies

Sharon has a family tradition of spritz cookies. They're like sugar cookies, but they taste like almonds and are more complicated. You have to have this piece of hardware that spits out little cookie shapes. It's makes me feels like I'm molding Play-Dough, but instead of crazy hair on some crazy head, you're pressing out perfect little flowers and wreaths and stars. Check it out.

The spritzes were particularly fun because I dyed my hands many colors working on them. Food coloring is amazing and I think I need to incorporate into my cooking more often.

To make spritzes, you'll need:
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs (sm) or 2 (lg)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp almond extract
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 cups flour
Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs (unbeaten), then add in the sifted dry ingredients and the almond extract. Use a cookie/biscuit press to form the cookies. We had the press set on "2" so that the cookies were bigger and puffier. Bake at 400 for 10-12 minutes.

To add the food coloring, I took a lump of dough, put some drops on it, then folded it up in my hands over and over until it changed via my wandless magic. Take that, Harry. I also had to warm it up because Sharon had actually made the dough the day before and refrigerated it.

Oh! Another hint: We used parchment paper to bake all of our cookies, BUT when you're using the cookie/biscuit press, the dough needs to be able to stick to the cookie sheet to pop off the press. So don't use parchment paper with the spritzes because it's too slippery!

Sugar Cookies

I was very excited for sugar cookies because I have a zillion cookie cutters. And I never get to use them as often as I'd like to. Sara had an excellent sugar cookie recipe from her grandmother. We burnt one batch, but otherwise these cookies were perfect. Just barely brown on the bottom, golden on top.

We used Sara's grandma's recipe for sugar cookies. Sometimes I give in and use Betty Crocker's sugar cookie mix because it's really easy, but, holy cow, Grandma Anderson's recipe is so much better. You'll need:
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt
Cut these ingredients like you're making pie crust, then add:
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
Roll the dough, and cut into your favorite shapes. Bake at 350 until slightly browned.

I think the best way to roll dough is to do it right on a table cloth. I put flour down on the cloth, all over the rolling pin, and a little right on the dough. Roll it to 1/8 - 1/4 inch thick. After many trials of sugar cookies throughout my life, I would venture that the real key to success is cutter size consistency. Larger cookies bake more evenly. If you have a mixture of different size cookies on the same pan, edges and corners burn. The big hearts and stars are great, but I love my wolves and violins and pineapple cutters too, so when I use them, I have to do all small cookies on the same pan and cook much shorter a time.

Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip Cherry Cookies

We also had some chocolate chips. I experimented a little and threw together these whole wheat chocolate cherry cookies. I just followed the Nestlé Tollhouse recipe (... Remember that episode of Friends?? I didn't, but Sara did...), but used whole wheat flour and added chopped cherries. And a little bit of organic peanut butter. They were ... really good.

So here's to the Christmas spirit. I already miss Thanksgiving, but I'm getting ready for Christmas. Expect posts from Louisiana, where the Internet will finally meet my Maw-Maw. All will love her and despair!* Because her cooking's so good. There's no way mine or yours will ever match it in deliciousness.

*Lord of the Rings quote indicates that Nate and I have finished our annual winter LotR marathon. Look out, Christmas!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Leftovers: Subverted Green Bean Casserole & Turkey Pan Pasta

Man, do I miss Thanksgiving. We ate a lot of Thanksgiving leftovers, and now I miss them too. Thankfully (ha!), my inter-holidays cooking endeavors have been even better since I inherited the rolling butcher block that my dad made. It's so beautiful and useful!

Subverted Green Bean Casserole

Everybody loves green bean casserole, right? It was the one thing I missed at Thanksgiving because this year, we did creamed spinach instead. So a couple of days after Thanksgiving when I'm walking through Target, I can't help but be drawn into the green bean casserole display right at the front in the bargain section. Fried onions, green beans and cream of mushroom soup all right next to each other for the taking and purchasing and eating.

Much to my dismay, when I got home and actually set out to make the easiest of holiday classics, I had been swindled! While I was seasoning, Nate was draining the cans of green beans. But one was practically empty!!

Well if Target wanted to play that way, then fine. We were ready to step it up and get creative. Instead of a second can of green beans, we used a can of Great Northern beans. Nate really wanted to spice it up and added a can of Rotel tomatoes and green chilis. Who says sacrilege isn't delicious?

Turkey Pan Pasta

When we brought home the turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving, we had segregated the meat. All of the white meat had been consumed, and we had a ziplock full of dark meat that needed to be eaten. I wanted some sort of chicken pot pie style dinner because it was cold as balls outside, so Nate and I created what we now dub Turkey Pan Pasta.

We used a box of Campbell's Supper Bakes of the Garlic Chicken with Pasta variety. I always keep a bag of frozen mixed vegetables in the freezer because I've loved mixed veggies since my elementary school lunchroom served them to me twice a week. I boiled some veggies while Nate picked through the turkey meat and pulled of the icky bits.

Ugh, he's SO CUTE.

Then we mixed it up and followed the directions on the box. These Supper Bakes come with "baking sauce" and crumb topping, so it makes a lovely little Minnesota hot dish when you're done.

Now that all the turkey is gone, get ready for some serious Christmas cooking in the next post. Holiday cookies, anyone?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Thanksgiving! - Turkey Deluxe and More!

I had an amazing Thanksgiving. The preparation of the food was thrust upon me and my sister at very near the last moment. We were at the grocery store until midnight on the phone with our mom. But you know what? We didn't mess anything up! We cooked everything we set out to cook! And it was delicious! I'm so proud.

The hardest thing about Thanksgiving was getting the timing right. We had so many things to cook in the oven that all had to be done before the turkey. We were up until three baking the night before, and Haley was up at six to finish before putting in the turkey around 830 or 9.

We made:
  • turkey & gravy
  • cranberry goo
  • sautéed squash
  • creamed spinach
  • cornbread dressing
  • rice
  • mashed potatoes
  • cheesy potatoes
  • corn
  • pumpkin crunch
  • pecan bars

Turkey Deluxe

Neither of us had cooked a turkey before. We had consulted with Mom, of course, and I had chatted with a customer where I work the day before. He swore it would be no good unless we brined the turkey first. Haley is a science nerd and thusly loves Alton Brown (I do too!) -- so we started with his Roast Turkey recipe here that Haley had seen on the teevee. Here's her prepping the brine.

We used a big fine gallon paint bucket to brine it. The brine is basically lots of salt, brown sugar, pepper and vegetable broth. You boil it up, pour it in the bucket, stick the turkey in breasts down, then cover it with icy cold water. It stayed out on my porch for about six hours, and we flipped it halfway through. I think with brining, the longer the better. Ed from the clinic said he brines his for twelve hours!

Next you add some aromatics -- the stuff you stick inside the turkey. We followed Alton and did apples (Minnesota Honeycrisp, a variety of apple designed by my alma mater) and onions.

Then you just stick it in the oven. You do it extra hot first, like, 450 or something. Then you bring it down after about half an hour. Unfortunately my oven is about this _____ big and really old, so even after we somehow made the 19 pound turkey fit inside of it, the house filled up with black smoke really badly. And I ain't got no ventilation. So we took it out and decided to bring it over to Nate's parents' house. Here's me with the already lovely turkey at 9 in the morning.

When we got there, the Rowans showed us their turkey trick: a big plastic baking bag. It keeps the moisture and flavor locked in and keeps things from burning and smoking. It cooked maybe... four hours? I won't give you the turkey porn 'til the end. Here's some other food.

Cranberry Goo

This is just cranberry goo. From cans. One of them was regular cranberry sauce (not jelly) and the other was whole cranberries. Mixed together. Rob made this. And how!

Creamed Spinach

Creamed spinach was easier and deliciouser than I thought. Apparently this is a staple to my sister because it's something her best friend always makes for Thanksgiving. We used two blocks of frozen spinach, cooked according to the directions. Then you sauté some onions -- usually scallions or something -- but we used purple because that's all we had by the time we got it -- with some butter and garlic. Once the spinach is done, throw it in and add about a cup of cream or half & half. Cook it until it thickens up. Don't forget salt & pepper. Voila!

Simple Squash

Oh god I love squash. Ain't nothin' better than sautéed squash. Just butter, onions and squash until they soften. And lots of Tony's.

Canfield Cornbread Dressing

Next is the crown jewel of this Thanksgiving -- my Maw-Maw's cornbread dressing. I was never a very big fan of this, but holy cow was it the most delicious thing ever when we made it. I think the reason was that it was a little crispier this time around.

It's sort of an ordeal, but worth it. Start by baking two boxes of cornbread into either one 9x13 or two 9x9s. Once it cools, crumble it up!

Then you boil a pound of chicken after seasoning. My mom does thighs, but I did breasts because I hate bones. While it's boiling, brown a pound of ground beef, well seasoned. Take the chicken out, let cool and then shred. You can do this with your hands or a couple of forks. It's a technique that anyone who's made authentic Mexican food should be familiar with.

While you're shredding, put all the turkey giblets (You know, they extra stuff that's in a bag inside the turkey. It's, like, the liver and heart and stuff.) into the same chicken water and boil those too. I know it's gross, but it's delicious. Now, if I'm not mistaken, my mom puts the giblets into the cornbread dressing -- or at least the neck meat. I know I couldn't stomach getting the neck meat off. Haley tried, but even she got grossed out. (In my mind, I have Nate quoting Napoleon's brother Kip: "You're bruising my neck meat!") Phydeaux was really happy to get the giblets. For us, they just made the broth amazing.

Chop up a couple of green bell peppers, an onion, some green onions and a bunch of parsley. Mix the crumbled cornbread, the shredded chicken, the ground beef, the peppers, the onions, the green onions and the parsley. Then put them in either one 9x13 or two 9x9s (or 8x8s?). Smush it down so it's packed tight, then pour the chicken and giblet broth over it. Not too much! You don't want it to be soggy. Then bake 'em!! About an hour at 350, of course. When they're golden brown around the edges, you'll want to scoop it up out of the hot baking dish with your bare hands it'll smell so good. Don't though!

Please make this your desktop background like I did. It's just so beautiful.

The Rest

This is the pumpkin crunch featured in the last post!

You know Krusteaz? Haley had wanted to make pecan pie, but we settled for a box of pecan bars. They're great! Really. Try them.

Sharon made her signature turkey gravy. Cold water and a Thunderstick are the two secrets, but I won't give away any more without permission.

Nate's Dad Bruce always cuts the turkey with this ancient electric knife, but this year he passed the honors on to Natey! I cried a little; it was my first time cooking Thanksgiving dinner and Nate's first time cutting the turkey. How pukishly domestic of us. I love it!!

Here's the food porn. GUH. SO GOOD.

All in all, the holiday was a complete success. Haley and I didn't sleep much, but we learned that moms and dads that cook Thanksgiving dinners do a lot of work with a lot of love. I'm really happy that I got to share the experience with Haley and Rob and Nate. And Charlie came to dinner too!

Thanks to the Rowans for letting us bring all the food over to their house and helping with the turkey when we were clueless. Thanks to Rob for some awesome photographic memories and help with dinner. Thanks to Nate for cutting the turkey and playing mandola all day. Thanks to Charlie for his pure self. Thanks to Mom for the Thanksgiving know-how and the many years of home-cooked meals. Thanks to Alton Brown for the rest. And a big dumb sentimental thanks to my big dumb sentimental sister Haley. I miss you!

The one thing I missed this Thanksgiving? Good ol' green bean casserole. But when I tried to make it, I didn't have enough green beans! What ever did I improvise? How badly did I adulterate a classic?? Find out next time in ... Experimental Cookery!