Saturday, December 24, 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Joy of Baking & Merrymaking: Christmas Cookies & Other Fun Traditions

I hate sugar cookies.  I always have and I always will.  They are dry and flavorless and I hate eating sprinkles in any form, which they are always inevitably drowned in.  But I love to make Sugar Cookies.  They epitomize so much about Christmas for me: the seasonal, the special, the almost-too-sweet but still-so-appealing.  And I remember so many Christmas seasons filled with them - cool Texas afternoons spent at the dining room table, our easy-bake-oven humming away, aprons tightly tied, red and green sugar sprinkles already scattered here there and everywhere despite the cookies and cakes not being ready.

This is the first Christmas season that Roman is old enough to understand a lot of the traditions we celebrate as a budding family.  He is filled with wonder, excitement and literally brimming with Christmas carols.  His favorites are "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (usually the Jackson Five version, incidentally), Frosty the Snowman, and Jingle Bells (which he just calls "Christmas" - as in, "let's sing Christmas").  We've been doing the Elf on the Shelf this year as well, and he named his elf "Finxy" - an awesome name for a 2 year-old to come up with; much to my dismay I was later reminded by Matt's uncle that the toilet-flushing cat on Meet the Fockers was called Finxy - oh great.

We like it, we like it.
We went and cut down our first ever natural tree at a Christmas tree farm here in Maine which was an amazing and beautiful adventure.  And I bought Roman his token cheap ceramic train ornament which he painted.  It still looks similarly muddy in color to the one from last year. :)

  All of this merrymaking is almost enough to make things like inevitable winter colds and snuffly noses, or the horrendous speeding ticket I got on Wednesday (my first ever!) forgettable, but I knew when despite all the cheer I started to get into a Grinchy-funk earlier this week that the only thing that could save me was a ridiculous amount of Christmas cookie baking.

Christmas cookies are such a wonderfully American thing.  Between my Bon Appetit subscription and Pinterest I have been bombarded with more recipes than I know what to do with.  In a brief moment of insanity, I flipped through my old issues of Olive (my British food magazine) to get more baking ideas but after pages of Mince Pies, Trifles and Sticky Toffee Puddings (and variations thereof), I realized - duh! - the British don't do cookies!  At best you might get some shortbread biscuits but none of the madness that you get stateside.  No snowflakes or snowmen or jammy sandwiches or hershey kiss toppings.  None of the little holly & berry sprinkles.  No Martha Stewart boxes.  So this year I decided to take a headlong dive back into American culture - just as much for Roman as for my own sanity - and bake several different cookies at once.  Not that I wanted to eat them or anything. :)

Here they are, in list form:

* * *

My Christmas Cookies 2011
(So Far)

4. Biscotti Bars (a mess-up saved)
Every year I bake my jolly-good cranberry almond biscotti from Payard's dessert book that Matt gave me the night we got engaged.  They are a tradition.  And yet every single year I manage to kind of botch-up the dough.  Sometimes it's too wet, sometimes too dry.  There are SO few ingredients I almost don't know how I manage it, but I do. :)  Anyway, this year the dough was way too dry and WAY too chunky because I decided to add the pistachios that I usually omit, so I ended up with what I have dubbed "Biscotti Bars."  Huge and chunky as hell, they taste good but have none of the sliced finesse that you will find below at number 3.

3. My Cranberry Biscotti
These are my holiday tradition.  Not too sweet and not too savory.  They have the delicious anise seeds and tangy cranberries and slivered almonds (which I omitted this year because I was giving the as gifts to Roman's teachers).  They are great for dunking in tea, coffee or straight liqueur, depending on how good, bad or boring your Christmas was this year.

2. Deep Dark Chocolate Cookies
I found the recipe for these on Pinterest and I've been drooling over the picture for weeks now.  They weren't all that hard to make and came out as deep, dark and delicious as I guessed they would.  If I had to make them again, though, I'd cut the sugar by almost half (even more than the girl linked above who "adapted" the epicurious recipe).  

These cookies are for bonafide chocaholics only and must absolutely be had with milk, which is why they were very-well-received by Matt, me and the resident expert, Romolph.

1. Sugar Cookies
I made these cookies with Roman and they turned out so cute I can't stand it.  Not only is the entire process of baking and cookie-cutting a great exercise in coordination, precision and complete and utter self-expression through sprinkles, but Roman got more than a month's worth of sugar and raw cookie dough in one sitting, so he was happy. :)  I got the recipe from the Joy of Baking Christmas Cookie site - an invaluable online tool for limitless types of Christmas cookies with tested recipes.  I didn't get a chance to make my royal icing but to be honest, I'm more a sprinkler than I am an icer when it comes to Sugar Cookies.

Still to come: The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever, Shortbread, & Profiteroles, if I'm feeling particularly nasty :)
* * *

Happy Baking and Merry-Making!  Just a week to go!

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Friday, November 18, 2011

November's a Turkey.

November is a Turkey.  

A fickle creature who hides in the background for most of the year and then suddenly starts running around ubiquitously, flaunting all sorts of colorful, once-hidden feathers, fattening itself - and you - up for a closely-guarded and fiercely-defended couple of weeks a year.  One day it's Halloween, all pumpkins and skeletons, and the next there's flocks of surprisingly nimble birds with a waddle wreaking havoc on rural roads while subconsciously also conjuring images of crispy roast skin and giblet gravy to go a-dancing sugar-plum-style inside our little heads.  The world seems to, overnight, go into orange-yellow-red-and-brown overdrive.  The trees are holding on for dear life and yet screaming with colors you would otherwise swear couldn't exist in nature (at least not on "dying" leaves anyway) and it's sensory overload with the crunching and raking of leaves and the howling of the dry autumn wind and the herds of squirrels hoarding acorns and chestnuts for the winter to come.  There is no desert here (well, technically there is) - and Roman seems perfectly happy to allow himself to be overwhelmed and full submerged into the many splendid colors of this cozy month, leaving Abu Dhabi full and firmly in the past.  

I must admit the whole thing is paradoxically nostalgic for me.  I grew up Mexican in a place where the leaves go from green to dead in a month's time.  Nothing pretty about it.  And the last Thanksgiving we had was in a desert where we were outnumbered by Brits, Kiwis and Arabs and it was probably 80 degrees outside (no trees there, for the record).  And yet, to me, November is always, absolutely, a Turkey.

This year we are hosting Matt's parents at our house for Thanksgiving.  I am so excited - and not because this is the first time I'll be cooking up a Turkey Day meal by myself, but because it's the first time I'll be doing it for Matt's family since we've always celebrated at his parents' house when we're in the States (if I wasn't at home).  Matt's parents are excellent cooks and have sophisticated appreciation for good food, so the heat is on.  And they also have the advantage that they are native New Englanders: there's just something so authentic and true about the way New Englanders cook Thanksgiving.  It almost feels like a natural extension of the way they normally eat - as if the Pilgrims and Indians have breathed a special breath of true-ness to the food that grows and is eaten here.

I've had a lot of fun decorating the house for Thanksgiving, with a little help from Roman.  I went cheesy and did the Thanksgiving Hand-Turkey with him one day as a craft project.  I kept one for myself and sent one to the grandparents.  Now I need to teach him to gobble and print out one of those color-your-own-Indian-feather-band things for the night-of. :)

* * *

The Menu

For my part, I've decided to go hardcore this year: I am buying a Turkey from a local Maine farm (Alewive's Brooks Farm in Cape Elizabeth) that grows them free-range.  It's not a heritage bird or anything but they only raise 200 a year and, hey, at least it's a slight deviation (improvement?) from my usual grocery store Butterball.  I'm interested to see if it really does taste better, especially given that it costs 5-times as much.

To make sure I don't ruin the bird, I am using my tried-and-tested method of religiously following Delia Smith's "Turkey Timeline."  For those of you who don't know Delia, she is the British Julia Child.  And even though her article is for Christmas Turkey (the Brits don't celebrate Thanksgiving, duh), it is such an easy, step-by-step timeline and ensures I am totally organized the day of.  You can use her traditional recipes (I love the use of bacon rashers to keep the breast moist) or substitute your own recipe.  Either way, it always works perfectly.  Take note, newbies.

Otherwise, I'm attempting to do a combination of Southern and Northern classics with the menu.  Here it is in theoretical form.  We'll see how much I actually manage to pull off well but at least I know that nobody will go hungry on my watch. :)
* * *


Homemade Pork Rilletes * (adapted the recipe) served with
Baguette Toasts
some stinkily delicious Pont L'Eveque
and some Raclette for good measure

Cocktails / Drinks:

Lemon-Herb Roasted Turkey & Giblet Gravy

Kentucky Corn Pudding (the not-so-secret "secret" recipe)
Mashed Potatoes
Texas Roadhouse Rolls (yeah buddy!) & copious amounts of their cinnamon butter

The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever. Period.

*Asterisks denote recipes I've never tried before.  Say a little prayer for me.
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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mornings in Paris. And Women With Big Eyes.

Mornings in Paris; Exchange St., Portland ME
 Roman goes to school three mornings a week, and lately I've been feeling really dissatisfied with my lame use of the precious 12 hours of me-time I am allotted each week.  I started feeling embittered each time I found myself mopping floors, pairing socks, or even cooking when I could have been basking in the Autumnal sunshine or reading War and Peace (which Matt currently is) instead.  Being a woman of infinite self-possession and determination, I decided to take matters into my own hands and simply force myself to go and interact with the world (as Matt had constantly encouraged me to do) rather than sit at home and be faced with the never-ending list of chores that, no matter what I do, is absolutely always there waiting for me.  Finding things to do outside of the house that don't involve grocery or unnecessary-random-stuff shopping is sometimes difficult for me to do here in Portland because I feel a little disconnected knowing that we'll be leaving next year.  I haven't made many friends because I don't want to deal with short-term attachments, and truth-be-told, being a pathetically warm-natured person I can't bear the thought of being outside in weather that's below 75 degrees now that it's Autumn and around 40 degrees every day. :)

I find myself nostalgically dreaming of my European jaunts - traveling alone, reading and writing at will.  Stopping for an espresso here and there in off-the-beaten-path cafes full of old-world charm and strangers.  Indulging in angst-ridden moments of romanticism and self-over-analysis and eating delicious food way-over my student budget simply because I couldn't do without it.

Luckily, when Carla visited me in August, we discovered a wonderful little cafe on Exchange Street in Portland.  It is called, much to my delight and infinitely appealingly, Mornings in Paris.  It is just the perfect combination of European charm mixed with large-mugged
Cafe Au Lait-zy
American-style-wannabe-French coffee.  They sell delicious Macarons, croissants, my favorite banana bread and, of course, Maine Potato Donuts.  It takes all the self-control I have to only get a medium Cafe Au Lait everytime I'm there (but I've promised myself I'm getting a donut next time).  The place is charming, has wonderful warm morning sunlight and despite the questionable choice of ochre yellow and black decor and the sometimes angsty barista, I find it highly aesthetically pleasing and welcoming.  The owners are French so there is a semi-legitimate row of European-style bistro tables lining the wall facing the coffee counter, looking out on the passersby of Exchange St.  All the seats are labeled with Parisian street names and I've chosen to sit at the same one each time - Place de La Concorde.  Right next to Notre Dame, fittingly.  Sometimes it's taken by the Japanese tourists that seem to flock to the French-themed locale, but I usually just bide my time and then move once they've left.  The music is hit or miss - this morning it was Willie Nelson followed by some kind of Radiohead-esque intense rock, but other days it's all Edith Piaf-Billie Holiday greats.  I don't mind that too much because it's pretty and I can get parking right outside of it at that time of day - after the breakfast rush but far before lunch will begin.

It has become my new morning haunt on days when I am Roman-less, though I don't think I'd be considered a "regular" yet - something I aspire to.  I love the coffee, the people-watching and the shamelessly indulgent aspect of being able to do nothing, or at least not anything of great productive value with regards to la vie quotidienne.  These days my "nothing productive" has come in the form of two things: knitting a sweater for Roman to work through my stash and reading a book.

The Book is called Mujeres de Ojos Grandes or Women With Big Eyes.  It is a series of vignettes that take place in Mexico, each about a different woman (the author's "Aunts"), presumably with big eyes.  This particular edition includes the English and (far superior) original Spanish text, which I am completely obsessed with.

The book was a gift from a co-worker in the English Department back in my teacher days in Upper Manhattan.  I discovered it a couple of weeks ago after almost 5 years of lying dormant in our book collection with a criptic but appealing inscription on the inside: "for you with the big eyes from Me."  I guess it's one of those happy coincidences - the book didn't appeal to me in the least when my friend gave it to me in 2006, but today it's exactly the kind of read I was looking for.  Easy to pick up, easy to put down, and yet absolutely engaging.

Besides being about Mexico, the book is beautifully written in a style that is both humorous and touching.  I've found myself so utterly absorbed in some of the stories about these women in the early 20th Century - imagining somehow that they are similar to my own Mexican grandmother and her sisters - that I've laughed too loud and cried too openly for being in a public place and haven't cared one bit.  The stories evoke childhoods I never had, and Mexican memories I never made, having left the country of my birth very early on in life and rarely going back anymore these days.  It's an easy way to romanticize a part of my culture and my family's heritage without digging into ugly truths or unpleasant realities.  In short, I am thoroughly enjoying it.  
It's just the thing for a girl with big eyes and her Mornings in Paris.
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Friday, November 4, 2011

Channeling My Inner-Matisse.

Detail of "Limonata San Pellegrino"; Acrylic on Canvas
Because I studied Art History I was sure I knew something about art.  I could tell you, if given the chance, about the techniques that are used, the lighting, the colors and how they do or do not work.  I could pontificate on different schools of thought, widely-hated critics, different philosophies, and even make pretentious jokes about obscure movements that make me sounds super-pretentious but smart.  I could proudly contextualize the particular painting into a dazzlingly complex network of historical events and personal experiences that may or may not have influenced the artist during the time it was produced, leaving you with an impressive knowledge of pre-industrial France or post WWII Spain and far too much information on what artists had STDs and slept-around or cared about the rights of hay-harvesters.  It's all very impressive conversation at dinner parties.  But take me out of the museum, put a canvas in front of me - or, actually, you don't even have to go that far - put a piece of paper and pencil in front of me and tell me to produce a piece of original art and I clam-up completely.  Painfully.  Cluelessly. 

I realized about 5 years ago when I was teaching ESL at a high school in Upper Manhattan that I had zero knowledge of actually making art myself, despite having devoted the better part of my college education to studying finished artistic endeavors.  Irony.  And as I sat in the art room at the High School for Law & Public Service (don't get me started on the absurdity and complete randomness of school names in Manhattan) trying to imitate a Japanese ink-drawing along with my students, I realized how the last time I'd actually taken an art class was in 4th grade.  Mrs. Allen, to be exact.  We did some "perspective" if I recall (an old western town with a big long perspective-filled street down the middle) and patterns and basic things like drawing shadows on a drawing of a wonky little cube.  And I was pretty bad.

So in 2008 I decided to teach myself how to watercolor - something that is, let me tell you, much harder to do than it sounds.  I used some amazing watercolors we'd bought in Mexico several years ago as my guide and actually did some decent amateurish work while on vacation in Greece.  Nothing to write home about, though (even though I did, of course, pictures included :)).  I will, however, gladly brag that a German couple offered to buy one of my paintings as I sat doodling it on the beach in Rhodes.  I was so taken with the fact that someone would actually like something I created as a memento of their vacation that I resolved to give it to them free of charge (they offered me $30 in case you're wondering).  I never saw them again, so it's now hanging in my bathroom.  Good times.

But my watercolors were kind of boring and after further ruminating on my lack of artistic skill for another couple of years, I finally took the leap and decided to take a semi-real art class this fall: Acrylic Painting.  I figured I probably had a good chance of not being the absolute worst person in my adult education course (being given, fittingly, at an arts high school here in Portland) because of my highly-developed aesthetic sensibilities and all that. :)  So now I've been going every week to a class of about 10 people consisting of the most motley crew I've ever seen.  And thinking of it now, I'm not even sure I'd be considered "the normal one."

Anyway, we produce something every week and some people bring their own stuff to work on.  It's truly amazing how much of a window into the soul a person's art is.  It's scary when the super-put-together-scientist-power-mom can't draw a simple tree.  It's also pretty humbling when the otherwise seemingly-bourgeois overweight businessman paints the most beautiful still-life or landscape. Who knew all that was floating inside that mind?  Not me.

The best / most challenging part of the class for me is making the rounds to look at other peoples' work and having them do the same to you.  It's like a therapy session where no matter how horrific what you're doing is, everyone gives positive reassurance - including our hilarious little ancient teacher who looks like a fully-dwarfed Salieri from Amadeus.  Fitting, given that with a stroke of his paint-brush he could literally annihilate my pathetic-little budding-artist's-self-esteem.  But Charlie wouldn't do that, no matter how much he hates my penchant for pinks, corals and bright-ass greens. :)

I've done some of the "exercises" Charlie has given us and I've branched out as well.  I figured it might be fun to document my progress or lack-thereof on my blog what with it being a blog on supposed aesthetics.  Here are my first works.  Matt tried his best to be a "fan" but asked that I wait until my later, more "developed" works to actually hang them in the house.  I, of course, then quickly ran around sprinkling pathetic artwork in random places all over our house.  :)

* * *

Exhibit A: The Monster
This sat in our reading room for the whole first month of my class.  I think Roman said he was scared of it at some point.
"The Monster" as Matt called it; our first "exercise" in painting with basic colors.  Yikes.

Exhibit B: "Bougainvilleas in Guanajuato" & Detail of highlighting
This was taken from a photo I took in Mexico several years back; I am really proud of my flowers and the bright colors, but I hate the building.

Detail of my bougainvillea: notice the use of yellow and blue to highlight. 
Very exciting.

Exhibit C: Limonata San Pellegrino

I am toying with the idea of doing a series of paintings of San Pellegrino drink cans.  I take one with me to class every single week, so why not.  The blood orange is up next.  I am obsessed with my lemons and their "shading / highlighting."  See detail above.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Happy Halloween from Romathor (who also hates candy corn)!


Happy Halloween from our little Viking Warrior*!  
There will be much devouring of sweet things and much crashing in a sugar-induced coma afterwards.
Life will be as it should be. :)

So, I'm doing my Halloween post a little early this year mostly because I couldn't wait to share Roman's costume but also because, let's face it, nobody cares about Halloween the day after :)
* * *

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays and also one that I have not been able to celebrate properly for years due to our non-American residence.  Let me tell you, Trick-or-Treating in the balmy Abu Dhabi weather had its perks but it definitely had its shortcomings - for one, Halloween was postponed until the first weekend in November last year due to the death of a Sheikh.  Not my cup of Arabic coffee.  

But it's not just the candy and dressing up that I love.  I love the whole run-up to Halloween with the candy-stashing, the decorating, the pumpkin carving (and of course pumpkin seed roasting!) and generally obsessing over autumnal and spooky things, something in short supply in the Middle East.  Here in New England, though, it really looks and feels spooky at this time of year with crunchy leaves, howling winds, and rustling woods everywhere you look, so it makes Roman's real "conscious" experience of the holiday all the more special.

I have to admit, though, that these days I'm not so involved in what used to be my very favorite part of Halloween: dressing up.  At least, not for myself.  I had so much fun choosing Roman's costume this year and I loved being able to make it myself too now that I have a sewing machine.  Growing up my mom always made our costumes and though I have to admit that sometimes I wished we could go to the store and buy the nice pre-made ones, looking back I see that our costumes were always that much cooler because they were unique.  I get it now and fully intend to inflict the same reality on my children.  I mean, I've had some pretty crazy costumes in my day (A Geisha, Uncle Fester and The London Eye(ball), for example) and I am proud to say that none of them were slinky, sexy or flaunty, and that, in fact, the weird ones weren't imposed on me by an over-imaginative mother - they were entirely my choice and sometimes to my own detriment (yes, someone called me a Condom when I dressed up as Uncle Fester and yes that did scar me). 

Understanding "costumes" and Halloween has been a real epiphany. :)
For the first time this year Roman really gets Halloween.  He is as much if not more of a devotee as me.  Every store we go into the request is loud and clear: "Can we go see the Halloween stuff?"  And then he makes me try on 20 different masks, push the buttons on all the dancing vampires / ghosts / witches and points out all the different kinds and colors of trick-or-treating pumpkins.  The clerks LOVE me.  It's actually really cute but after about the 30th time I started lying and saying that the masks were sleeping because too many people tried them on and they were tired.  So sue me.  The kid is obsessed!  Besides, I don't want him having some freaky preoccupation with the morbid.  On the other hand, I think it has been a serious epiphany for Roman to understand what it means to "dress up" or pretend to be something else.  I think next year will be really cool because I have a feeling he'll have a very definite opinion on what he wants to dress up as, whereas this year the Viking was allowed because he just didn't get it yet.

But sentimental discoveries aside, let's get to the point of Halloween: everyone likes Halloween because of the candy.  No matter how many silly commercials or kids' shows try to tout the idea of "healthy" Halloween snacks, it's just utter BS.  Nobody eats apples on Halloween.  Nobody wants nuts in their bag.  And nobody actually eats the "home-baked oatmeal pumpkin cookies."  I mean, come on, that's just bad!  

So not all Halloween candy is created equal.  We know this.  

And actually just recently Matt and I had a serious discussion regarding a traditional Halloween candy that we find utterly puzzling: Candy Corn.  He doesn't like candy corn.  I HATE candy corn.  Even Roman won't eat it!  In fact, between the two of us, we couldn't think of a single person who actually does like it.  We have started to wonder if it's just one of those old-timey things that people gave out and ate on Halloewen because they didn't have Snickers bars around back then.  Interestingly, the Nick Jr. Moose seems to agree.

Candy Corn nightmares aside, over the many years of relentlessly stalking down every single light-on-pumpkin-out-ghoulish-creature-in-the-corner-house in the neighborhood, I've become a connoisseur of Halloween candy - the good, the bad and the downright ugly.  What makes you smile, what makes you cry, and what makes it worth shoving the little fairy next to you to the ground ninja-style to get into that plastic cauldron first?  Here they are in Top 5 form.

* * *

Brenda's Top 5 Halloween Treats
Because I have no qualms about taking down the little fairy princess if I have to.

5. The Holy Trinity of Halloween Mini-Candy Bars: Snickers, Three Musketeers, and Almond Joy (Milky Way?)
You know you're in a home of generosity when you see these pricey little guys in the treat bowl.  Unless a 1 or 2 piece minimum has been established by your patron, dig in brotha' because chances are the guy next door will have something nasty like Dots or unmarked orange and black taffy things on his plate.  Milky Way is kind of an honorable mention. I prefer Almond Joy but I know that's probably not the norm.

4. BlowPops or Tootsie Pops
I mean the full-size ones and I would take BlowPops over Tootsie any day but would settle for either over DumDums.  Admittedly, I love DumDums (especially the thrill of the mystery DumDum) but you just cannot pass up that sugary bubble gum interior (or the chance to mimick the ridiculous owl who asks how many licks it takes to get to the center :)).

3. SweeTARTS or Smarties
I am a sour-candy fiend.  I could eat sour stuff all day long but on Halloween my choices are limited in that department.  Almost nobody gives out Warheads or Nerds these days (though those are high on the longer list of awesome Halloween candy), so the next best thing, and  all nostalgically-packaged-to-boot are SweeTARTS and Smarties.  I LOVE the crinkly wrapping.  I love that you get to eat them one little coinlet at a time in both cases.  I love that they are sweet but sour.  Ah, I just love them.

2. Hershey's Miniatures
Back in the day I was quick with the eye and the hand in getting the Mr. Goodbar before all the other kids in my trick-or-treating group.  It was a fight for survival.  The Goodbar, the Krackel, or the Dark Chocolate.  Always good, and kept well in the closet stash for the next few months leading up to Christmas.  Besides, am I alone in believing these are literally the perfect size piece of chocolate?  Not too much that you feel like a pig.  Small enough to justify more than one.  Halloween candy in Platonic form, really.

1. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups - The Big Ones.
Nothing sets the Halloweener's heart a-racing like the sight of that bright Orange wrapper.  We all know what it is - the big single-serving Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.  A veritable Holy Grail of candy - something so utterly decadent and wonderful (unless you have peanut allergies) that you almost want to eat it before you get home so you don't have to split the difference with your kid sister (sorry Caaa).  Sure, we all like the little ones wrapped in their golden foil, usually half-smushed by the time you get home, but you really feel like you did your parents proud when you get The Big One.  The combo of peanuts and chocolate is the perfect, sticky, messy Halloween indulgence and my favorite treat of all. :) 

* * *
Happy Trick-or-Treating and Many a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup to You All!
* * *

* For Roman's costume this year I used a grey jogging suit from Wal-Mart as a basis and then sewed the brown vest and boot covers you see from furiously fuzzy remainders I found at Joann's.  I used his rain boots as a pattern for making the boots which have no bottom and a long felt section at the top which folds into the top of the boot, keeping it in place.  Roman has been wearing the boots around the house and in public for well over a month, so I think they are a hit and am considering making other variations including green monster feet :)

Yeti Feet.
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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Autumnal Cravings Indulged: Home-picked Dutch Apple Pie with Bacony Crumble

Apple picking is one of those things.  It's one of those things that is so basic and seems so unquestionably part of Fall that surely everyone must have done it at some point.  But I never had.  Despite knowing Johnny Appleseed's song by heart, and despite having eaten a Granny Smith in my lunch every day for the better part of my childhood, I had never picked an apple from a tree, really, until a few weeks ago.  That wrong had to be righted (word?!).  Luckily here in New England - it's the thing to do in the fall (pick apples? right wrongs? both.).  So when Roman's school put together a little child-parent apple-picking outing to a local family-run Cumberland Farm - Orchard Hill Farm -, we all jumped at the chance.

old-timey apple sorter
The farm itself was quaint as can be, with a little farm house full of freshly baked apple cider donuts, several varieties of other apple baked goods, souvenirs, old-timey toys and fresh apple cider.  They had an old fashioned apple sorter, pumpkins for sale, and bags to collect apples in for relatively cheap prices.  They also offered a fun hayride through the orchard pulled by a beautifully restored 1951 John Deere tractor.  The tour guide was one of their sons; he was hilarious with his monotone delivery of the orchard-history-apple-guide spiel and odd joke. 
keeping the doctor away
We all thoroughly enjoyed it, but especially Roman, who after 5 minutes of picking went straight into apple-devouring mode.  He would take one bite, drop the apple and run to the next tree, despite our efforts to stop him.  In the end he ate 3 whole apples on his own: "That should keep the doctor away for at least 3 days" said another parent. :)

The orchard boasted several types of apples: Granny Smith, Mcintosh, Cortland, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious and more.  I made sure to get a variety with a heavy emphasis on the Granny Smiths and Cortlands which make awesome pies.  And speaking of awesome apple pies, I made the best ever apple pie with our bountiful harvest, and here is the recipe along with some pictures of Roman's antics.

* * *

Dutch Apple Pie with Bacony Crumble

Serves 6-8

I have now fully jumped on the bacon-in-dessert train.   And after this dessert, I am actually honking the horn and shoveling the coal too.  :)  There is bacon only in the special crumble that typically goes on top of a Dutch Apple Pie (as opposed to the double-crust American one), so you can easily omit it without sacrificing any flavor, but I say go for it.  If Decadence is your game, this apple pie is your new Game. 

I combined two recipes to make my pie adding bits and pieces of my own as I went along, so I owe them a mention: Dutch Apple Pie and Bacon Apple Pie.  I am also now toying with the idea of somehow involving cheddar cheese in the crumble - reminiscent of my cheesey apple cobbler.  Ah, how I love to combine savory and sweet!

1 homemade or pre-made crust for 9" pie pan:  

Apple Filling
(I always eyeball the spices so go with what you like)
4-5 cups of apples, chopped and peeled (half Granny Smith, half Mcintosh)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground black pepper (semi-coarsely ground)
fruits of our labor
pinch of nutmeg
pinch of ground giner
pinch of allspice
1 ground clove (a small pinch)
1/4 salt 
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
3 tbsp butter

6 strips applewood-smoked bacon (or whatever you have on hand), fried until crisp then chopped into small pieces
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup light brown sugar
Pinch of finely ground black pepper
1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ¼-inch cubes

1. Preheat oven to 375F.  Roll out the crust into a 12-inch circle and loosely place on pie dish allowing a 1/2-inch overhang all around and trimming as necessary.  Crimp the edges decoratively.  Poke holes in the bottom and sides of the crust with a fork then place foil over it folding the edges over the edge of the crust for protection.  Then put baking beads or a smaller glass pie dish on top of the foil and bake the crust in lower part of the oven for about 20 minutes or until it looks light and dry in color.  Increase the temperature to 425F.
Note: you may have to bake it less time.  Keep an eye on it as you don't want the crust to brown or it will burn when you bake it with the filling and crumble.

2. Make the filling by combining all the ingredients except the cream and butter in a large bowl, tossing until well covered.  Then melt the butter in a saucepan and when the foaming has subsided, add the apples.  Cook covered for 10-15 minutes until tender and a caramel sauce starts to form.  Add the cream and bring to a boil uncovered and simmer until the sauce is reduced to a caramely thickness.  The granny smith apples will hold their shape while the mcintoshes will start to break down a little.  Remove from heat and set aside, allowing to cool.

3. Make the crumble by combining the flower and sugar in a bowl.  Next add the butter and use fingers or a pastry cutter to cut the two together until pea-sized crumbs form throughout.  Next add the chopped, cooled bacon to the mix, evenly combining.

4.  Pour the semi-cool apple mixture into the crust and spread out evenly.  Put the crumble mixture on top and bake at 425F for 10-20 minutes or until the topping and crust are golden brown.  If your crust starts to brown too much, use foil to cover the pie edges and continue baking.

Enjoy!  Pickers can be choosers :)

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Monday, September 26, 2011

Fall-time Fricassees: Autumn & Chanterelles

Fricassee of Chanterelles with Egg Tagliatelle

There are so many things to love about this time of year.  September and October in the middle latitudes are bountiful - not only in that late-summer, early-autumn-harvest kind of way either.  The climate changes in a pretty marked manner, not entirely for the worse.  As sad as I always am to say goodbye to summer, the Autumn is the earth's way of saying, "Come on, it's not all bad!"

In Autumn I start craving all sorts of fall-y things like sweet and savory pies of every sort, squashes and pumpkins, and mushrooms galore.  Ah, my crazy love affair with mushrooms.  It never ends, nor does it vaguely begin to wain.  It's like a hopeless addiction.  Proof of which is the fact that despite the painful $19.99/lb price tag, I cannot help myself from going for a small bag of Chanterelles at Whole Foods these days.  It's almost too much to ask myself - like I'm doing my family an active disservice by NOT buying them these meaty, yellow-y, most-definitely-autumnal mushrooms right now

I've had Chanterelles on the brain for a while now.  A couple of weeks ago we went to a fantastic dinner double-date at Bresca in downtown Portland.  One of their starter choices was a wild mushroom (locally foraged, btw) souffle.  That night was a classic example of my tendency to overthink my menu choices.  It was obvous that I should have gotten it from the moment I saw the menu but instead I opted for the "Braised Tuscan Black Kale with a 6 minute egg, crispy pancetta, kombu butter, and charred multi grain bread."  It was delicious.  But it was no Chanterelle souffle.  Maybe that's why I'm still obsessing over the mushrooms.

Either way, in my latest Bon Appetit magazine was a recipe for Fricassee of Chanterelles, and it looked good enough (even better than that, actually) to eat based solely on the picture.  I was enticed all the more once I read the recipe.  So I broke down and indulged my grubby little hands in some Whole Foods foraging.  It was absolutely worthwhile.  I highly recommend it.  Even Roman ate it!  Autumnal indulgence #1: check.  If you can find fresh papardelle I would say go for those over tagliatelle (it's all I could get last-minute).

Now for my top five other Fall-time Fricassees - things that make this time of year worth living for, not just just living in.

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My Top 5 Favorite Fall-time Fricassees!
 take that as you will

All done!
5. The Fairs / Festivals are coming.
It seems like literally every single day we find out about a new festival or carnival going on in the next town over.  This week is the apparently infamous Cumberland Fair which we will hopefully be hitting up tomorrow evening for some rides and good Fall food.  The Fryburg Fair is coming up and this past weekend was some kind of Gardner's fair where all they have is Maine-produced food.  Apparently they didn't serve coffee for a couple of years because there isn't any native Maine coffee!  Kinda neat.

4. The Foliage (already!)
There is one tree on our street that is painfully beautiful already with its bright red and orange leaves.  Having taken a drive through the countryside this weekend I can say it is the exception at this point in time, but yes, the foliage is coming!  The foliage is coming!  Don't you want to come visit me? :)

3. Fantastic Apples & Orchard
This past weekend we went apple picking with Roman and his nursery school.  It is one of those things I've wanted to do since I first heard about Johnny Appleseed when I was in elementary school.  If there are apple orchards in Texas we never went.  I had so much fun seeing Roman run around eating about as many apples as he could hold.  And the orchard was just beautiful.  Pictures to come.

2. The Freakish Pumpkins
We were going out for a "family dinner" the other night at the Longhorn Steakhouse (yes, it has come to that) in South Portland when a small pick-up truck drove by with the largest pumpkin I've seen in my entire life.  Roman and I jumped off the car and ran after him.  He happily allowed Roman to jump up on the bed and pose with the pumpkin.  He'd just come from one of the many fairs where he'd won 1st place for largest pumpkin in Maine: 950lbs my friends!  Crazy freakishness. :)
1. Halloween!
Ahhhhhh!  I LOVE Halloween!  It is one of the many reasons I am particularly happy to be back in the US after our 5 year hiatus.  Let me tell you, Halloween in Abu Dhabi sucked.  Especially because some Sheikh died the day before and our neighborhood promptly "postponed" trick-or-treating until the first weekend in November due to a week of national mourning.  What the hell is that?!  Anyway, I've been diligently slaving away on my Viking Sewing Machine making Roman his first-ever homemade Halloween costume.  It's super cute.  No, actually, it's so much more than that.  But we'll save that juicy tidbit for another post. :)

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And on a tangentially related note, Matt and I are heading to Prague this coming week for our first-ever Roman-less vacation (thank you In-Laws!).  I have a lot to update on when we get back so hopefully that means my posts will be a little more frequent.  Until then, go buy some mushrooms and make me proud!

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Scallop, Citrus & Avocado Ceviche: Stay-at-Home Fishing

Scallop, Citrus & Avocado Ceviche - almost Carpaccio-style.
I assume it's obvious by now that one of my favorite parts about getting together with family (and people in general) is what we eat.  I especially enjoy going to Matt's parents' house for this reason because his family loves food and makes very different dishes than the ones I grew up with.  We inevitably have large pieces of meat every single day paired with American-bounty-esque side dishes like homemade mashed potatoes or potato salad.  It's all always delicious and in that regard I feel very spoiled by my in-laws.  But inevitably, by the end of the weekend I am seriously (ravenously) craving Mexican food.  Rice... Beans...Limes...Tortillas...Avocados...Please!

On that note, I haven't had many chances to cook for my in-laws, so when I do have the opportunity I try to make something they don't usually eat at home themselves but that is also representative of me as a person and the way Matt and I love to eat at home.  While our style of eating could theoretically, to the outside observer, seem like a haphazard, borderline-schizophrenic jumble of random ethnic dishes I've picked up here and there, there is some method to my madness.  I cook dishes from places I've been and love.  Not just places I've been.  Places I've been and love.  And I don't cook things that I just kind of like.  I only cook the foods that had me at hello.

Growing up, one of those "had me at hello" dishes was ceviche.  When Matt announced to me that July day that he and his brother would be going fishing with his dad - no-girls-allowed-style - aside from being slightly bitter about the whole thing (because I love to fish!), I decided it was time to stage a stay-at-home-fishing experience by making ceviche with fresh scallops for all the girls.  My recipe is below.  But first, the list for this post:

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Ceviche: The Who, What, Where, Why & How
because raw fish & citrus go together like a wink and a smile

5. The WHO:
It is a highly debated topic - who invented ceviche.  Lots of people say it was the Peruvians.  There are those who would say some place in Southeast Asia, or even the Moors in Spain.  All I know is that it was my dad that first made ceviche for me, his seafood-addict-child.  I can remember constantly sneaking to the fridge to watch it marinate and impatiently waiting until the lime juice had cooked the shrimp just long enough for me to clandestinely steal a chunk.  It was a love-affair, I tell you.

4. The WHAT:
Mexican ceviche, or at least the one I've always seen and eaten, is predominantly made with octopus, white fish and/or shrimp in a tomato, cilantro, and lime-based marinade, usually with avocadoes added and garnished with tortilla chips or crackers.  But ceviche can be any raw-fish and citrus combination and can be as elaborate or simple as you wish to make it.  Some people love to pair sweet with sour by adding fruits such as oranges and jicamas to the mix.  The great thing is that ceviche, by definition, is a dish that celebrates the delicious flavor of fresh fish cooked by the acids in citrus juices.  The possibilities are endless.

3. The WHERE:
Ceviche is most popular in South and Central America, where there is a culture of both good, fresh seafood and a great use of citrus as a condiment.  I once had a student from Ecuador who told me it was their national food.  You can find it served on beaches everywhere in Mexico, usually cocktail-style.  I find it's great to serve at dinner parties either as a group appetizer or light individual starter.

2. The WHY:
For me, the why of ceviche is simple: it's a technically easy dish to prepare.  It requires very little work up front and then no further work until you serve it.  And if done correctly, it offers a variety of delicious flavors that nobody can argue with (unless they hate seafood, in which case you are SOL).  And even if you have someone in the party who is picky or squeamish about raw fish, you can sear the fish or cook it and serve it with the marinade over it (though it wouldn't be true ceviche anymore).

1. The HOW:
It's easy.  Check out the recipe below. :)

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Scallop, Citrus & Avocado Ceviche

Serves 4-6

You can make ceviche in many ways.  I prefer to do it carpaccio-style, slicing the fish extremely thinly and layering it on a large platter.  It makes for a pretty dish and is also less sloppy-looking.  This is ideal with scallops since they are already a pretty round shape.

10-12 Large King Scallops (not those tiny little ones)
2 large Hass Avocados
3-4 juicy limes
2 navel oranges
1/4 cup orange juice
1/2 medium onion sliced into half-rings
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp chopped cilantro
1/2 - 1 jalapeno pepper, chopped (optional)
1 tbsp olive oil
2-3 tbsps red wine vinegar
pinch of sugar
salt & pepper to taste

1. Make sure the scallops smell and look fresh and clean.  Slice them lengthwise into thin rounds.  You should get 3-4 slices out of each king scallop.  Set aside.

2. Slice your onions, chop your cilantro, jalapeno (if you're not a wuss) and mince the garlic.  Set aside.

3. Take out your large, flat platter (make sure it has a high enough edge that the marinade will not run off).  Cut the avocados in half, then into thin slices - enough to cover the bottom of the platter.  Arrange evenly.

4. Next, using your knife, peel the oranges and delicately cut the wedges out of the orange, leaving any peel and pith behind.  Arrange the thin orange slices all over the platter with the avocado.  Save the orange juice and pith on the cutting board.

5. Next, arrange the scallops and onion slices on top of the avocado and orange, making sure the surface level is even and attractive.

5. In a separate bowl, squeeze the orange remains to get any juice out.  If you have 1/4 cup already doing that, don't add extra orange juice.  Otherwise, add the 1/4 cup in the recipe.  Then squeeze the juice of all the limes into the bowl.  Add the garlic, cilantro, jalapeno, sugar, vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.  Whisk the dressing until emulsified.  Then pour over the scallop platter, making sure that the scallops are covered with enough dressing to be under it (otherwise they won't cook).  If there is not enough dressing, push the scallops down into it and rearrange the avocados / oranges so that the fish is covered.

6. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 6-8 hours.  Serve with tortilla chips or saltine crackers (my favorite).  You will know the scallops are cooked once they turn an opaque white, but they will probably still be rare on the inside.  Delicious. :)

Mental Note: I have to say I think this would be delicious with some fennel thrown in as well.

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