December 31, 2007

Slow Baked Potatoes

I did something over the weekend that I shouldn't have. I weighed myself.


I've gained 20 pounds this past year. And I need to do something about that.

So, I've decided to do the South Beach Diet again...starting tomorrow. I did it a few years ago, after my dad was diagnosed with diabetes, more to get healthy than to lose weight.

I'll have to put some of my "plan to cook" recipes--like my search for the perfect macaroni & cheese--on hold while I make healthier dishes. But, that will be a new quest all its own.

As one last act of indulgence, after I ate leftover fettuccine alfredo, I slow baked some potatoes for lunch today. I've been reading about slow roasting vegetables, so I followed Alanna's recipe on A Veggie Venture, which says to roast the spuds at 350 for 3 hours.

The house smelled so good as the potatoes cooked, and I could hear them slightly sizzling & sputtering. I peeked into the oven a few times, and gently poked each potato. The skins were getting really crispy.

When I took the potatoes out of the oven after 3 hours, I was a little skeptical. They felt hard. I wondered if I'd read the recipe wrong and cooked them at too high a temperature. But, those potatoes were so soft and fluffy on the inside, so creamy. I didn't even put butter on them. Instead, I ate them--skins and all--with just a sprinkle of salt.

And potatoes or other starches, no fruit, no sweets for two weeks.

Cheese Souffle with Lobster Sauce

Let me tell you about my friend Margaret. I met her at the university where we both taught English. She is beautiful, brilliant, talented, creative, funny, caring, and a wonderful cook. I always think of Margaret as an "Earth Mother," always a nurturer.

I love her.

Recently, Margaret learned to master the souffle. So, before Christmas I suggested that we cook together...she could teach me to make souffle and I could show her how to cook a live lobster, something I learned at one of Kitchen Conservatory's Novel Cuisine classes.

Our little dinner party evolved into one of extreme, but simple, decadence. As Margaret wrote on her blog:

Here is my menu for an upcoming very small holiday dinner at my place, as demonstration of the principle that quality ingredients prepared simply are the secret to culinary happiness:

Caviar on crackers with creme fraiche
Very Light Salad
Cheese souffle with lobster sauce
Hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps
Gingered Sugar Cookies, Peppermint Sugar Cookies

Yes, all simple. Nothing to cover up, nothing to obscure. If any of these ingredients were less than fresh or less than fine the meal would suffer horribly (and thus the guests). So, we'll work with live lobster, fresh (even though the inexpensive domestic kind) caviar, good eggs, local cream and milk, fine cheese and chocolate, homemade cookies baked that day, and the freshest salad makings (Kelly is bringing them, and I know she won't go astray). That's it.

Margaret had called the local seafood market to see if they had any caviar; they were getting a shipment that day of Missouri paddlefish caviar (very comparable to the expensive Russian kind!) at $20 an ounce, so she reserved a jar for us. I picked it up with a 1 1/2 pound lobster.

I was pretty nervous about Margaret's suggestion of a "very light salad." I didn't want to disappoint. So, I wandered around Whole Foods until I decided on fresh arugula with tangerines (with the leaves still attached!) and balsamic syrup.

Making the souffle was much easier than I expected. We first boiled the lobster, then I went to town with a kitchen towel, breaking the meat out of the shell. We undercooked it just slightly, as it would finish cooking in the sauce. Next, we made a roux for the souffle, then added some eggs yolks to it. Margaret beat the eggs whites BY HAND, and that got folded into the yolk mixture with some cheese. It was dumped in a prepared dish, which was buttered & parmesaned. Apparently, that's the give the souffle something to cling to as it rises up the pan.

As the souffle cooked, Margaret made the creamy lobster sauce, which she spooned onto plates and topped with portions of the souffle. The salad was a do-it-yourself kind of thing as everyone got to squeeze tangerine wedges and drizzle balsamic syrup on their arugula.

The entire meal was simply divine. It was some of the most delicious, most satisfying food I've had in a while. The souffle was perfect, the lobster sauce was obscenely rich, and the "real" hot chocolate (dark chocolate melted in heavy cream) was absolutely orgasmic.

I was so full when I left, that I had to unbuckle my belt in the car. No joke.

Christmas Cookies

I had this grand plan to make 12 different cookie recipes this year. But that didn't work as I had hoped. I simply didn't have time to make that many cookies, and thank god...I still have cookies left from the 4 batches I did bake!

I started with Martha Stewart's Pumpkin Cookies, because I had two cans of pumpkin puree in my pantry and I had no idea why. Did I plan to make a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, then completely forgot about it? I haven't a clue.

Is 34 too young to be going senile?

Nevertheless, December 13th was a cold day (32 degrees!) and in an attempt to avoid grading papers, I began my Christmas baking.

I adapted Martha's recipe slightly, increasing the pumpkin pie spice to one tablespoon and adding a couple teaspoons of gingerbread syrup. The batter tasted just like pumpkin pie filling.


Instead of drizzling the finished cookies with chocolate, like the recipe calls for (I was too lazy to deal with melted chocolate), I sprinkled them with cinnamon & sugar before baking.

They turned out soft & cakey, but not my favorite. Though, I did use them for the cake layer in my Spiced Pear & Caramel Trifle.

Next, I made my Grandma Martin's Chocolate Nut Drops. I've made these in the past, but they never turn out like hers. They were too cakey and dry. After looking through my recipe box, I found Grandma's own typed recipe card. I was using butter instead of shortening and cocoa powder instead of melted chocolate. So, I tried these cookies again.

There was one problem, however. Her recipe is a little vague. It calls for "2 squares of melted chocolate" but doesn't say how much those two squares are or what kind of chocolate. I guessed and chose German chocolate, which wasn't right. As soon as I opened the package, I knew those squares were too small. (I've since learned that I should have used baker's unsweetened chocolate, which comes in individually wrapped 1 ounce squares).

The cookies were better this time, a texture and taste more like Grandma's cookies.


A few days later, I made press cookies at my friends' second annual cookie baking party. My Grandma Green always made these kind of cookies; green christmas trees with sprinkles were my favorite. I bought a cookie press several year ago and always use the recipe for Classic Spritz Cookies that came with it...a recipe that calls for 3 sticks of butter!

We had fun all taking turns shooting the cookie gun. We made the green trees with sprinkles, white snowflakes with red & white peppermint spinkles, wreaths, leaves, and hearts.

Slop having a go with the gun.

I'm dangerous with a trigger.

Decorative & Delicious!

Lindy's first ever batch of cookies: Peanut Butter Oatmeal.

Erin's sexy Snickerdoodles.

Finally, I baked some Lavender Faerie Cookies, a recipe my friend Sue gave me a few years ago. Sue actually introduced me to the joy that is eating lavender. She adds it to her "better butter" (equal parts olive oil & butter) that she uses every day.

If you've never eaten lavender-laced food, you must try it. I like lavender mixed with melted butter and used as a dip for steamed artichokes. It's also very good on roasted asparagus.

Anyway, these cookies were very delicate and fragrant. My friend Margaret called them "startling". They go excellently with hot chocolate & even with red wine.


December 18, 2007


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December 16, 2007

Spiced Pear & Caramel Trifle

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Layers of aromatic cake, fruit, caramel, custard, & nuts inspired by Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales books, this is my entry for A Recipe From the Crease of my Right Eye, a food blogging event from Habeas Brulee.

According to Danielle, "the food and spice imagery in these books is inspiring. Not only does the boy steal food from the Sultan’s palace to bring to the girl, but the imagery infuses the rest of the stories as well. [...] In the second book, the basilisk lives in a grove of persimmon and coconut, a girl dances in shoes made of cinnamon, and Ajanabh, the city of spice, is filled with a spice-smog, 'the faintest sigh of cardamom and cumin and cinnamon breathing through the night.' It is filled with quail eggs and cinnamon candies, rose and leek sandwiches, sugar pies and lamb fat. And more, and more. "

With this imagery in mind, I decided to make something seasonal and full of spice...something to help use up all that gingerbread syrup.

So, here it first entry into a blogger's cooking very own recipe, which I invented specifically for this contest, for SPICED PEAR & CARAMEL TRIFLE...

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For the pumpkin cake:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon pumpkin-pie spice
2 teaspoons gingerbread syrup
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
15 ounces (1 can) pure pumpkin puree

For the caramel & pears:
½ cup + 1 tablespoon butter
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 red pears (halved, cored, & sliced)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons spiced rum

For the custard:
2 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
3 tablespoons gingerbread syrup
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
8 ounces heavy cream, whipped

For the topping:
1/4 cup mixed nuts (I used almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, & pumpkin seeds)
1/4 cup dried fruits (I used cranberries, raisins, & golden raisins)
1/2 tablespoon candied ginger, finely chopped.


Make the cake:
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, pumpkin-pie spice, and salt; set aside.
3. In another bowl, beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg; beat until smooth. With mixer on low speed, alternately add half of the flour mixture, then all of the pumpkin puree, then the rest of the flour mixture; mix just until combined (do not overmix).
4. Pour into a 9x9 baking dish & bake for 15-20 minutes.
5. Remove from oven & let cool.
6. Cut into bite-sized pieces.

Make the caramel:
1. In a medium saucepan, melt brown sugar & ½ cup butter over medium-low heat, whisking often.
2. When melted & smooth, stir in heavy cream.
3. Remove from heat & let cool to room temperature.

Make the pears:
1. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large non-stick skillet over medium heat.
2. Add pears & cook about 10 minutes, until warmed through but not mushy.
3. Sprinkle cinnamon & sugar over, stir.
4. Turn off the heat & pour in spiced rum, stir.
5. Let cool to room temperature.

Make the custard:
1. Blend yolks & sugar until light & fluffy.
2. Add gingerbread syrup.
3. Add mascarpone & blend until smooth.
4. Fold in whipped cream.
5. Refrigerate until ready to assemble trifle.

Assemble the trifle:
1. In a trifle bowl, place 3 cups of cubed pumpkin cake.
2. Top with pears & their liquid.
3. Pour over 2/3 cup (or up to 1 cup, if desired) caramel.
4. Layer in custard.
5. Sprinkle nuts, fruit, & ginger on top.

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December 13, 2007

Insatiable Macaroni & Cheese

I've been doing much research in my quest for the perfect mac-n-cheese, including browsing through all my cookbooks for recipes, purchasing a new all macaroni & cheese cookbook, and comparing numerous recipes online.

Most of the recipes I've found for baked mac-n-cheese are made with either a bechamel sauce or Velvetta cheese. While I plan to try a bechamel-based dish eventually, that's not what I am in the mood for. Instead, I've been looking for a recipe more that which my Grandma Green used to make.

You see, each year for the holidays (Christmas & Easter), Grandma would make the same meal...Italian sausages from the local butcher, ham, baked mac-n-cheese, potato salad, and "pink salad."

Let me explain this "pink salad": It's a strawberry jello/cream cheese/whipped cream thing that I can't stand to eat. However, at some point, Grandma got the impression that I LOVED the pink salad. And so, at every holiday, Grandma made it just for me (much like that dreaded Easter lamb cake). She even wrote out the recipe for me when I got married. After so many years of her thinking that I liked the pink stuff, I would take a small spoonful of it with my dinner so as not to hurt my grandmother's.

Anyway, Granny's mac-n-cheese wasn't very saucy & creamy; it was more of a stringy cheesy, almost dry, kind of thing...with lots of black pepper. So, when recently I came across Gael Greene's Almost Like Mom's Macaroni and Cheese recipe in her book Insatiable, I decided to try it out.

Greene writes: "This is a recipe food-writer friends have been passing around—I got it from Arthur Schwartz (a passionate New Yorker), who got it from Suzanne Hamlin (an ultimate southerner). I am using it here because it’s close to my memory of my Detroit-born mom’s baked macaroni. The goal is crisp, not creamy. Use half-and-half instead of milk if you like it creamier." [emphasis mine]

There seems to be quite a history behind this particular recipe, which Schwartz calls "the mother of macaroni and cheese recipes." It seems to derive from 1950's version served in school cafeterias. Schwartz's version calls for butter instead of olive oil, an addition of finely minced onion, & melted butter stirred into the bread crumb mixture.

Here's how I made it today:
Almost like Grandma's Baked Mac & Cheese
You'll need:
1/2 pound small elbow macaroni.
1 tablespoon olive oil (or butter)
1 tablespoon salt.
2 1/2 cups shredded white cheddar cheese.
1 cup 2% milk.
1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt.
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper.
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder.
4 tablespoons bread crumbs.
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese.
1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
2. Spray the bottom and sides of a baking dish* (one that can go under the boiler) with cooking spray.
3. Cook macaroni in boiling, salted water until just tender. Drain well.
4. Immediately turn the macaroni into the baking dish. Toss with olive oil. Then add cheese, milk, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Mix well.
5. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes, then remove from oven and stir. Sprinkle bread crumbs and parm on top. Bake another 15 minutes.
6. If topping has not browned and crisped to your liking, drizzle the top with a tablespoon or so of olive oil and bake another 5 minutes.
7. If still not sufficiently browned and crisped, stick it under the broiler. DON'T WALK AWAY TO QUICKLY CHECK YOUR EMAIL, because after just a few seconds the top will be well-done.
8. Curse, quickly remove pan from boiler, & scrap off any burnt crumbs.
* Greene suggests using a flat (as opposed to a loaf pan) metal pan for added crispiness. I used an oval stoneware casserole dish.

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The pictures suck, but the macaroni was pretty damn good! Not exactly like Granny's, but similar in texture...not creamy as I imagine bechamel or Velvetta versions to be. The crumb topping created a satisfying crunch when I spooned some out, but next time I'll use less of it as it was a bit distracting.

December 12, 2007

Ten Things to do with Gingerbread Syrup

10. Spike your coffee or tea.

9. Make dessert: Add to cake batter, icing, whipped cream, or ice cream.

8. Spice up breakfast: mix into pancake/waffle batter or oatmeal.

7. Spread it on: stir into softened butter & use on toast or bagels.

6. Drizzle over baked sweet potatoes.

5. Make dips: mix with 1 jar of marshmallow cream & 1 block of cream cheese to use with fruit, stir into homemade pumpkin hummus, use instead of fresh ginger in peanut satay dip.

4. Mix with mustard: spread on turkey or chicken sandwiches.

3. Glaze a ham.

2. Shake up a cocktail: shake with vodka (plain, vanilla, or orange) & top with a splash of ginger ale or 7-Up. Or shake with vanilla vodka, Kahlua, & cream for a gingerbread latte martini!

1. Make gingerbread vinaigrette: whisk 1/4 cup cider vinegar with 1 teaspoon (or more to taste) syrup, 1 crushed garlic clove, & a pinch of salt. Continue whisking & slowly drizzle in 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil. Pour over a spinach salad with apple (or pear) slices, dried cranberries, walnuts (or pecans, almonds, pine nuts), & goat cheese (crumbled, sliced, or coated with bread crumbs and lightly fried). This goes really well with roasted chicken or pork!

December 11, 2007

Visions of Gingerbread & Peppermint Dance in My Head

Champagne + Gingerbread Syrup = PURE JOY.

I saw this recipe for "Christmas in a Glass" in Nigella Express and was anxious to try it. All I did was add a tablespoon or so of syrup to each glass. So festive...and delicious!

The problem was finding the syrup. I remember Starbucks selling small bottles of it last year, but they are not carrying it this year. I explained my dilemma to a guy at Starbucks recently, and he very generously gave me a plastic cup with some syrup for free. Last night, I asked again about buying some syrup and learned that they only sell the big bottles now. But, they are only about $7 each, so I decided to get one. When I got home, a friend of mine brought a second bottle over to surprise me (since I've been talking about this for a couple weeks!).

Now I have 2 liters of gingerbread syrup. I used some in coffee this morning, but am looking for other recipes. Any suggestions?

I went to sleep last night while thinking about what all I could use that syrup for. You would have thought I'd dream about gingerbread. Instead, I dreamt that I made a chocolate peppermint cake...a single layer of chocolate cake covered in vanilla icing and topped with crushed candy canes. A sign? Apparently, I've been thinking too much about holiday baking.

Indeed, I have been giving lots of thought to which cookies to bake this year. I have it narrowed down to 12 recipes and am seriously considering just baking them all...a "12 days of Christmas cookies" kind of thing. That would, after all, be much more cheery than my last 12 days list which set off an onslaught of family drama.

So, if you know me, expect to receive some cookies......

December 10, 2007

Turkey Noodle Soup

Last December a winter storm rolled through the mid-west, covering everything in ice that flattened trees and cut out power for many days.

For the past few days, it's been raining in St. Louis. Once the temperature drops, all that water turns to ice. Once again, everything is covered with a layer of ice, making cars & houses & trees look as if they were made of glass.

I think it's actually quite beautiful. While driving down the river road on my way to the winery yesterday, I felt a little like I was in a black & white Ansel Adams photograph. Last night, the streetlights & Christmas lights sparkled off the ice.

Winter is finally here (it was way too warm this November). I've been nursing a cold the past week, which I attribute to the sudden change in weather. So, I need some comfort food. All I've been wanting to eat and drink is hot tea and soup...peppermint tea and hearty cream or noodle soup to be exact.

I always have these grand plans to make homemade soups. My freezer is usually stocked with ingredients like chicken bones, shrimp shells, and various vegetables. Right now, in fact, I have bags of asparagus stems saved from the summer. But, I never use any of it, often throwing most of it away when I can't remember the last time I ate shrimp or whatever

However, Friday night after I got home from work, I made a pot of turkey stock with stuff from the freezer...the first homemade stock I've ever simmering that leftover Thanksgiving carcass, carrots, celery, onions, garlic, rosemary, oregano, salt & pepper in water for two hours. When it was finally midnight...I drained the stock, then picked off all the extra meat from the bones. Last night I made turkey noodle soup for dinner by adding thin egg noodles, carrots, celery, garlic, & rosemary to the stock.

I don't know what it is about soup that is so comforting. Maybe it's the warmth, the heartiness, and the memories...this soup reminded me so much of my grandmother's homemade chicken noodle soup. Whatever it is, it did the trick.

And now, after waking up to a literal winter wonderland, I have a pot of soup waiting to warm me.

December 3, 2007

Foodies Online

THANKS to Alanna of A Veggie Venture, for inviting me to be a part of the St. Louis food bloggers group. This is motivating me to update my blog more and strive to find my niche in the world of food bloggers. I have a few good ideas for the next month, so check back often!

SHOPPING FOR A FOODIE? Check out the St. Louis Food Gifts lists from those local bloggers. My idea: If you've got a wine lover on your list, take a short road trip to Piasa Winery in Grafton, Illinois. They make 10 wines from grapes they grow in Godfrey. Their River Road Red, a semi-dry red made from Norton & Rougeon grapes, was voted Best Red Wine in Illinois at the State Fair this summer. They also carry hundreds of wines from around the world.

CONGRATS to my friend Margaret, whose Smith Family Recipes & Stories blog earned her "featured publisher" status on Food Buzz.

NEED A PERSONAL CHEF? For those of you in the St. Louis area, check out Unseen Orchard (Margaret's new catering venture). Another gift idea: A romantic dinner for two, lovingly prepared by Margaret in your home. Wouldn't your spouse/parents/best friend/kid's teacher/neighbor just love that?

FOOD BUZZ: Click here to see my new page, where I'll be posting my favorite recipes and other tasty tidbits.