Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cold Weather, Hot Meat Pie

As the wind blows hard and the temperature drops to 38 degrees here in sunny Las Vegas, I can't help but think of comfort food. The cold blustery weather reminds me of my trip to London last Spring. Although we did not run into a plethora of gourmet British food, a good old meat pie was very easy to enjoy. We found our pie in a cute pub just off of Trafalgar Square. After meandering up a narrow spiral staircase, we ordered our pub food at the bar, and then found a cushy little table by a stained glass window.

After downing the delicious meat pie, I wondered how long the British had been eating these tasty little things. I soon found out that they date back to at least Medieval England. Back then, however, meat pies were filled with bite size pieces of venison, rabbit, pheasant, or pork as well as figs, and root vegetables. King Henry VI of England was supposedly served meat pie made of peacock when he was coordinated.

When I got home, I tried several recipes for the meat pie. I like left over roast, potatoes, and carrots the best. The pastry part is actually easy to make. Here is my favorite recipe for the dough.

Meat Pie Pastry Dough
(makes 2 pie tops)

8 Tablespoons butter, room temperature
4 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup cream
1 1/2 cups, plus 2 T flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

In a food processor blend butter, cream cheese, and cream together until smooth. Add the flour and salt. Pulse until mixed. Divide the dough into two discs. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll the dough out to 1/8 inch. Place on top of the meat pie and seal to the baking dish. Cut a few slits in the dough to create vents for the steam. Bake for 20 minutes in a 350 oven.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Star Tree

One family tradition that I have done with my boys every year is to make a Christmas tree using different sized stars stacked on top of one another. This is so much easier than trying to make a gingerbread house, and you still get the benefit of wonderful smelling cookie in your home.

I bought a kit with all of the stars years ago when my oldest was first born. You could easily, however, take a star cookie cutter, trace it, and while using a copier, blow it up a few sizes and then minimize it a few sizes. After cutting out the stars, you can use them as templates, or patterns for the stars.

After cutting and cooking your cookies, merely stack the stars from biggest to smallest, gluing them with royal icing. Decorate as you go with any kind of sprinkle. Let it dry overnight, and you will have a wonderful center piece for your holiday table.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sugar Cookies

Now that I am in full Christmas cookie swing, I had to write about the ever so notorious sugar cookie. I think sugar cookie have gotten a bad reputation in past years. There are many yucky sugar cookie recipes out there, so be careful when determining what kind of sugar cookie you want. For Christmas sugar cookies I like a dough that is sweet, smooth to roll out, easy to make cuts, and of course it holds the shape after being cooked. Further more, my husband likes crisp cookies, so crispy golden bottoms are a must. For such a cookie, I use Martha Stewart's sugar cookie recipe. It has been the only one that has not spread out on me.

Not everyone is going for the crisp cookie. My sister, for instance likes soft fluffy cookies with pink icing. Those types of cookie doughs are not for making cut out cookies. It is best to use for large rounds covered in an almond flavored royal icing with confetti sprinkles.

A few tips for getting a well-shaped sugar cookie is to work with the dough in small batches so that it does not get too soft on you. Roll out on a cold surface. To get as many cuts out of your dough as possible start from the most outer edge of the dough, and then work your way to the center. After cutting out your shapes remove excess dough from between the shapes. Flour a metal spatula to transfer the cut-out cookie onto the pan. Refrigerate the pan of cookies before putting them in the oven. They should be firm and cold to the touch.

A sugar cookie really is not anything if the decorations are not screaming "CHRISTMAS"! I buy all of my cookie making supplies from a great on-line store called "Fancy Flours". Their catalog is beautiful as well, and gives much inspiration to the aspiring baker. Every package comes with the contents wrapped in cute black polka dot tissue paper. The pants I used on this little sugar cookie boy is actually rice paper that you put over icing. This year I bought some edible "disco dust" to give my cookies an extra sparkle! Happy cookie making everyone!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas Cookie Know How

Every year at Christmas time I go into cookie mode. I love to give ribbon wrapped boxes of cookies to friends and family. In order for that to happen, I actually start Thanksgiving weekend. Over the years I have developed a system to make hundreds of cookies that look challenging to make. In actuality, however, making mass quantities of beautiful Christmas cookies is easier than one would think.

My first tip to making the cookies is to find a great recipe. Easier said than done? Nope. Martha Stewart is the queen of cookies. Her cookbooks, website, , & magazines all have cookie recipes. Every Christmas she comes out with either a cookie magazine or a holiday baking magazine. This year, however, Martha partnered up with the new Apple IPAD to have a cookie recipe application featuring recipes as well as videos. The recipe for the chewy coconut chocolate pinwheel cookie is one of my favorite Martha Stewart recipes.

My next tip for mass production of Christmas cookies is to make all the dough first. When I make the spiral cookies I make 4 or 5 batches separately of all of the white part of the dough first. This aids in not having to wash & clean out your bowl after each batch. After rolling it out into the rectangle, I stack them up and refrigerate until I am ready to make the fudge to pour in the center (with these cookies, never use chocolate chips. The fudge will be lumpy instead of smooth). I make 1 batch of the fudge at a time, and then roll up each roll to let set for the night. Following this routine makes it easy to cut and cook the next day.

My next favorite Christmas cookie comes from Ina Garten. It is the jam thumbprint cookie. Again, making 4 or 5 batches of dough is easy, chilling over night, and then baking the next day. To get my cookies to come out uniform, I weigh each ball on a digital scale. Each one should be
1 oz. Good French jam is the best in the jam thumbprint. Bonne Maman's raspberry is a good flavor, and it is easy to find in almost any grocery store. Ina rolls hers in coconut, but I have found that coarse sugar makes these cookies sparkle.

After baking my cookies I let them cool completely and then I put them in freezer bags to freeze. The day I put my boxes together, I let the cookies thaw out before loading into a wax paper lined box. Williams-Sonoma has cookie and candy boxes along with personalized ribbon during the holidays. The best time to buy these items is AFTER the holidays when they go on sale. Then you don't have to spend extra money on a beautiful package.

The best tip I really have, is to have lots of fun with it! Once you find a recipe put it in a card or computer file so you can make it next year. Happy baking!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Aunt Chick's Cookie Cutters

Christmas was never Christmas unless my mother hauled out her red basket of cookie cutters. My favorite was a funny old Santa that she would decorate; coconut beard, raisin eyes, and blushed cheeks. When I grew up and had kids of my own, I asked my mother if I could have her cookie cutter. It was to my horror, however, that she had given the red basket of cookie cutters to my sister.

I asked my mom where she had bought them, so I could also get some.....uhm 30 years later? It was in Oklahoma in the 1960's. Aunt Chick's was the manufacturer. It was started by a little woman in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Her name was Nettie McBirney. The line of cookie cutters was started in 1948.

Although the company was out of business, I was able to find an Aunt Chick's following on the Internet. Grandma's Cutters is a website that sells replicas of the old Aunt Chick's cutters as well as many other vintage knock offs. Ebay is a great place to look if you want the original antique version of the cookie cutter. I went for the antique set. Make sure there is a recipe included. Only Aunt Chick's special recipe works.

Rolling and pounding the little Santa's is arduous work, but well worth the happiness as the form takes shape. Raisins are put in for the eyes before the dough is cooked. After the dough is punched out, it helps to put the sweet little faces in the fridge to chill before popping in the oven.

There are many variations for decorating the Santa's. The instructions noted using coconut for the beard. My mother did use coconut, but since my son has an allergy to coconut, I used sparkling sugar crystals. To make the cheeks blush I used, as did my mother, watered down red food coloring. Applying it carefully makes the Santa come to life.

Now when I ask my boys what Christmas cookies they want to make this year, they do what I always did and ask for the Aunt Chick's Santa faces. It makes me happy to carry on the family memory.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Blessings

Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert W. Weir
U.S. Capital Rotunda 1837

With out a doubt, Thanksgiving has to be one of my favorite holidays. It is one that is not filled with hopes of gifts or outdoor barbeques. It is a quiet holiday that is spent in the splendor of friends and family. It is a gathering to make memories and share stories of the past. The Thanksgiving meal may be grand or very simple. It may contain a turkey or tofu. It really does not matter as long as the thoughts and blessings of what we have are thick in our memories. So, to everyone this year I offer my Thanksgiving Blessings.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Parrot Tulips

It is hard to imagine that anyone could pick just one particular type of tulip to love and adore. All tulips have a sleek regal beauty that not even the prickly thorny rose can acquire. But if I were hard pressed to pick a favorite tulip, I would have to say the Parrot Tulip wins my heart hands down. The variety is named after the frilly wing-like petals that adorn the flower. Choosing from a variety of colors, the pink and green parrot tulip stands supreme in my book.

These are the tulips displayed in 17th century Northern Renaissance vanity paintings; large floral arrangements dripping with luscious exotic flowers, dripping wet with dew. You almost get the sense that you could pluck one out of the frame to wipe away the water drops. In the early 1600's there was a "tulip mania". People were wild about the elegant flower in Europe. They were so obsessed with the beauty and value of this bulb that it was traded as a commodity.

Tulip bulbs were originally from the area of Kazakhstan in Asia. They grew wild in the fields. At that time, the bulbs were eaten (although, I would NOT recommend it now). It was an ambassador of Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire who brought the tulips to Holland. From there the Dutch cultivated the vast array of varieties we enjoy today. Although the Parrot Tulip seems like it would be expensive to buy, there are many catalogs and nurseries who stock them for a decent price in the Fall.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pretty Pansies

In an earlier blog post, I had stated that the geranium was my favorite flowering plant. Although that is true, I must say I have a particular fondness for the pansy. The pansy is a remarkable flower. It is part of the viola species. "Johnny Jump Ups" are the most common viola. Their flower is small and slender displaying two lavender petals on the top and three yellow petals blushed with purple on the bottom. People call them Johnny Jump Ups because if not contained they pop up everywhere, and can be a beautiful nuisance to some gardeners. I, myself, always welcomed their little faces.

The larger pansy was cultivated from the small viola species. The colors and faces range from deep blackish purples to bright orange. As a matter a fact, those are the pansies that I would plant for Halloween! The variety of flower can be big or medium, fluffy and frilly, or just plain and simple. I love the pansy because it really reminds me of a face. Perhaps it is a fond memory of the Disney cartoon, "Alice In Wonderland", where the flowers sing to Alice. Silly movie, who ever heard of a talking flower? Outrageous! Although, I did find myself talking to my pansies' little faces.

The most remarkable feature of a pansy, is that while they look delicate they are hardy. In snowy areas you are suppose to plant pansies in the chilly Fall. They don't mind being crushed under the mountains of snow during the Winter. When the snow melts, the pansy is the first flower to be seen. Even before the crocus, which appears in early February, the pansy lifts its head high. So, now is the time my fellow gardeners to peruse your local nursery and pick the pansy variety that you would like to greet you every day.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Desert Skies

As the sun set today in the desert sky there was a hint of rain in the fresh air. The clouds were hues of pink and orange. The dusty wet smell reminded me of the home where I grew up in Arizona. When I was a girl we lived in Scottsdale, Arizona; then a rural town full of corn fields and turkey farms. Now it is a booming sophisticated city with acres of golf courses and mileage of designer shops.

My father would take me out to the edge of the city to see the sun set behind the thorny and soft Sonoran Desert. Some may think it an irony that I associate a desert to being soft. The Sonoran Desert, however, is lush with vegetation. Nowhere else in the world can you find the beautiful saguaro cactus. The area is also rich with other wonderful plants like the prickly pear cactus, agave plant, and the willowy mesquite trees. All these varieties of vegetation produce wonderful fruits, juices, & beans. The indigenous people to the area used these plants for their survival.

Now I live in the Mohave Desert. It reminds me more of the moon with it's grey stark landscape. No matter how hard the developers try, there is always the rock hard moonscape to deal with. I must admit also, that I am not as familiar with the plants of the Mohave. I do know, however, what I like, and the one saving grace of the Mohave Desert in my opinion is the Joshua Tree. I had never heard of one until the band, U2 came out with an album, "Joshua Tree". Now I look forward to driving through them on my way to California. There is an entire forest that is an environmental landmark.

So, no matter if it is Sonoran or Mohave, I will always love the sunsets of the desert. I guess I am a "desert rat" at heart!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Hot Chocolate Time

One of my very favorite comfort foods is hot chocolate. The smell of rich chocolate filling the air brings back childhood memories of waking up in the early winter mornings and getting ready for school. I never thought of it then, but I realize now as an adult that my mother's routine hot chocolate with toast was far from the ordinary American breakfast.

I imagine that it became a family ritual when we lived in Holland and visited many of the neighboring countries. Perhaps it was because my parents did not drink coffee and this was their little a.m. vice. It was, nevertheless the replacement for the sugary cereals, pancakes or eggs that everyone else was eating.

My mother's recipe was simple and never measured. It was one of the first things that I learned how to make myself. It was always a blop of cocoa powder, a spoon of white sugar and whole milk poured ever so slowly while mixing it all into a thick syrup. Placing the syrup in the cocoa cups, my mother would pour the hot milk into each cup. Heavily buttered toast was served on the side where with we dunked into the steaming mixture.

Last year a friend sent me her Christmas Hot Chocolate recipe. It is not as simple as my mother's, but it makes large quantities of the delectable liquid treat.

Christmas Hot Chocolate

3 quarts boiling water
1 can (about 16 oz. serving size) Belgian Cocoa Mix
2 cans milk (I use one can sweetened condensed & one evaporated)
1 large Valrhona Chocolate Bar (grated).

Boil Water in a large stock pot
Heat milk in saucepan on stove (you can heat the two cans together)
Add cocoa mix to boiling water and still until there are no lumps
Add heated milks & grated chocolate bar to water & stir.

Serve it in a warm crock pot all day long for a special Christmas treat.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fig Jam

While perusing my local family market, I came across mission figs. Mission figs are the deep purple figs with the ruby center of delicate seeds. When I see figs, two things come to mind; broiled figs with goat cheese and honey, and the ever so inviting fig jam. Fig jam congers up memories of fall for me.

We had a fig tree when I was growing up. I remember how my father would wrestle the tree when he would prune it; white sap oozing from every branch that was cut. He was always so proud when he would emerge in the kitchen with handfuls of figs. I did not come to appreciate the figs, however, until I got older.
Fig jam is surprisingly easy to make. Simply cut the figs in half if they are small, or quarters if they are larger. Pour sugar over the top. I use 2 cups of sugar to 8 pounds of figs. Let it set over night so the sugar can melt into the figs to release their juices.
The next morning simmer the pot on a low to medium setting. Stir frequently to let the figs cook evenly. Skim the brown foam of the top as it boils.
A word to the wise.....there is a fine line between jam that congeals and jam that caramelizes. You do NOT want the latter. It will taste like bad cough syrup. Watch your jam. Get a plate that has been in the freezer. Pour a small amount of the jam on the plate and tip it. The jam should ripple off the plate slowly.
When the jam is ready pour the mixture into hot sterilized jars, making sure there is no excess air bubbles by running a butter knife on the inside. Wipe the edges and tops of the jars with a warm wet kitchen cloth to remove any excess droplets of jam. Seal the jars with the tops. Boil the jars in a hot water bath for 30 minutes.

The jam makes a wonderful accompaniment to Thanksgiving dinner, or a sweet present for the holidays. Happy jam making!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Sunny Sunday Afternoon

As I sit here on a quiet Sunday with the sun shinning and the breezes blowing, I am relegated to sneaking a pack of my son's mini oreos while sipping on a diet coke. What has my life come to? I can't help but think I would much rather be in Paris relaxing in a cafe.

I would not mind strolling the narrow streets to find luscious pastries in the windows; pinks and greens reminding me of a Marie Antoinette's silk gown. I mean, look at this beautiful Parisian macaroon cake! Filled with whipped cream it looks as if it could dance out of the store itself to the tune of the Viennese waltz.

I would love to find a quaint candy shop where I could get lost in the displays of shape and color. What about these precious marzipan petals and the marshmallow squares echoing a vibrant Spring flower. They taste as good as they look; the marzipan tender and sweet, and the marshmallows soft and gooy. Ahhhh Paris. I wonder if my husband has any frequent flyer miles!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

For The Love Of Marzipan

When I was a little girl I lived with my family in Holland. We traveled around Europe quite a bit, becoming well versed in the confections and pastries of the continent.

My father was an avid fan of marzipan, the soft mixture of ground almonds and sugar. He would take it in most any form; cakes, cookies, pastries, or even strait up. I, myself, was a lover of the rum ball....but that is another story.

My mother had a love for marzipan as well, only her obsession was purely from an artistic stance. We would often look in confectionery stores to eye the cute little marzipan shaped fruits, vegetables, and even animals. When she would get home, my mother would try to recreate the little pieces of edible art. My father would admire them for a moment and then pop them into his mouth. My lasting memory is seeing a pink marzipan pig in my mother's china cabinet; petrified beyond being edible, but still beautiful in an artistic sort of way. I'm not sure why that one got past my dad.

When I was in London and Paris this year, I too admired the marzipan in the shop windows, and I brought my father plenty to nibble or gobble on. It was a throw back memory as he yummed them down.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Hummingbird Bakery

While I was in London this Spring I stayed in the Kensington District. It is a quaint little neighborhood not too far from the Victoria & Albert Museum and the ever so famous Harrods. If anything, it is the quintessential Victorian neighborhood.

While staying there I would walk everyday past a cute little bakery called The Hummingbird Bakery. With it's white facade and hanging cupcakes dangling in the windows, I found myself whispering, "ahhhh, the Hummingbird Bakery". Longing to go in, I never did because I was always scurrying somewhere with my husband.

At times....especially "tea time", which is 3-5 in London, there would be lines pouring out the doors and down the sidewalk. Their specialty was indeed the luscious cupcakes that I saw in the window displays.

On our last day my husband said, "Everyday you say, "ahhhh the Hummingbird Cafe. Why don't you go in and get us some!" So, when my husband was at a British football (soccer for you Americans) match, I went shopping. On my way home I stopped to spend some of my last pounds on the popular little cakes.

I was SO excited! Finally! The two little cupcakes sat in their brown and pink box it seem for hours until my husband returned back to our b&b (The Aster House). It was nearly seven when he got back, and we both had not eaten dinner, so we went out to a cute little French bistro down the street, leaving the little cupcakes for our return.

When we got back I could hardly wait for the unveiling of the prize British take on an American classic. My husband took the red velvet and I the chocolate with pink icing. We sank our teeth into the fluffy frosting and then down into the "sponge" (as the British call it). We both looked at each other with mouths full of the cake. And then it hit. It was the most horrible cupcake I had ever had in my life! We both swallowed hard and then pitch the pretty little things in the trash. How disappointing! I still can't figure out why on earth there would ever be a line out the door and down the street! So much for British food.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Beach Dreaming

With the hot Summer in full swing, I can't help but let my mind drift into a lazy daydream that features the cool misty beach. Two of my very favorite are Pebble Beach and the ever so enchanting Coronado Island.

When most people think of Pebble Beach they see the famous PGA or celebrity golf tournament. For me, however, the fame and fortune of this quiet hideaway fades as I remember happy memories as a young adult. Quickly racing to the rocky sand after work, I would plunge my tired feet into the cool foam of the Pacific water, washing the stress from my body and soul while breathing the ocean mist.

Coronado Island congers up charming memories of my little boys digging and laughing as they play in the sand. This is a peaceful family place as well as a secret lovers dream. It is a Victorian town filled with romantic tales of King Edward of England and his lady love Wallace Simpson. And who could ever forget the haunting movie of "Somewhere In Time" with Christopher Reeves and Jane Seymore?

"Reflection" by Dan McCaw

These two beaches also remind me of my favorite contemporary impressionist painter, Dan McCaw who's paintings I would admire on my lunch hour at the Trailside Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona. His earlier works were of his wife and children at the beach with soft reflective colors. McCaw's style now seems to be more painterly laced with bold and dark colors. I wish I would have bought one of his earlier works when they were only $2,000 to $4,000 (now they are $20,000), but it seemed like an impossible splurge at the time.