Friday, December 30, 2011

Cranberry-Almond Biscotti

While I didn't accomplish the Christmas Cookies I had hoped to make, as gifts, I was able to make two biscotti recipes.  This one comes from an Italian friend that I work with.    I've never made biscotti, and I'm amazed at how easy they are to make.  I even dipped them in chocolate and packed them away until I could wrap them in gift bags and ribbon, for my coworkers.

Apparently, both my son and husband loved these as well.  Let's just say that the "kitchen mice" got into them. They pouted when I gave what they hadn't eaten-- and they had barely left me enough to package as gifts. So, I made more. Just for them.  Well, I like these too. A lot.

The dry ingredients are flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.  Room temperature unsalted butter and eggs bind it all together. (Why are my eggs soaking in water? It's my shortcut for bringing refrigerator cold eggs to room temp-- I soak them in hot tap water.)  To flavor this biscotti, you need a little orange and lemon zest.

To know me, is to know that I love shopping at King Arthur Flour.  I am really fond of their fiori di sicilia extract.  This has notes of vanilla and citrus, and I use it a lot.  I decided to try their Pure Orange oil and lemon oil (not to be confused with extract).  Sometimes, I just don't have a fresh orange or lemon on hand, so I wanted to see how I liked using these products.  These are very concentrated, so I added less than 1/8 teaspoon of the citrus oils and about 1/2 teaspoon of the fiori di sicilia.

Begin by creaming the soften butter and sugar until fluffy-- about 3 minutes.

Add the eggs, lemon and orange zest (or, in my case, the citrus oils) and then about 1/3 of the flour mixture. 

Add the cranberries and sliced almonds, and slowly add the remaining flour.

The batter tastes so good!  I got just the right balance of citrus and vanilla. 

I doubled the recipe, so I divided the dough in half and shaped them into "logs".  Wetting my hands made this easy to do, without the dough sticking. These do spread quite a bit, so they need to be spread.  A silpat mat or parchment paper really helps, too.

Bake at 350F for until light golden-- about 40 minutes.

Allow to cool just until you can touch them-- about 10 minutes.
A serrated knife makes cutting them, on the diagonal, at about 3/4" much easier to do. I found that pressing straight down works better, than sawing. I got less broken cookies and crumbs.

NOTE: My personal preference with biscotti is to bake them just until they are a very light golden color.  I want to underbake by five minutes, because I prefer mine to be a little softer inside. On the other hand, my son prefers them to be baked harder, because he dunks them in coffee. 

Set each slice on one side and bake for 15 minutes. I like to turn them over, at 7 minutes, so they bake more evenly.
Transfer the baked biscotti to a rack and allow to cool.

VERDICT:  I love these. Plain and simple. They are slightly sweet, but not too much.  They crumble a bit, and have a soft inside and a crisp outside. Just the way I like them.  I didn't photograph the batches that I dipped in dark chocolate.  They are excellent.  I prefer my biscotti without chocolate, only because I enjoy them with my morning coffee-- and that counts as breakfast, right?

This biscotti recipe saved me, because I wanted to give something edible as Christmas gifts.  They took about 15 minutes for the batter to be ready, and by doubling the recipe, I got 24 biscotti.  They got a lot of compliments, so mission accomplished.   Thanks, Kelly, for sharing your Italian recipe with me.   A printable recipe is at the end of this post.

2011 has been a good to me. I have no complaints.  I wish all of you a safe and wonderful New Year!
Thank you for your friendship.  You have made blogging a lot of fun for me.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Salisbury Steak with Onion Gravy -- A Ratatouille Moment

Now that the Christmas turkey dinners and prime ribs have been devoured, and the last of the Christmas cookies have been eaten-- it's time to get back to good ole regular food.  At least, that's how I'm feeling.  Yes, I gorged nibbled on some chocolates. I indulged in a cookie here and there.    At times like this, there  comes a point where I want some simple home cooking, with vegetables.  When that craving hits, I want it quickly, and I don't want to fuss over making dinner.

Cube steaks are an easy solution, because they are inexpensive and cook in a matter of minutes.  What? You've never had a cube steak?

A cube steak is either a piece of top round or top sirloin that has been tenderized with a masher.  I let my butcher do the work since he has a mechanical tenderizer.  One night, in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I spend a few dollars on cube steak with no particular recipe in mind. I'd had a long day at the office, I was tired and hungry.

I wiped each steak dry, so that they'd brown nicely in a hot skillet. Seasoning was simple-- kosher salt & pepper.  I wanted a sauce, because I wanted to make mashed potatoes. NOTE: Both steaks cost less than $7.00. 

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Sunday, December 25, 2011

Red Velvet Cake with White Chocolate Frosting

After all of my whining stress about this Christmas Season, I am most thankful that my family gathered together for a traditional German Christmas Eve Dinner.   What made this particular holiday so different, is that we adults mutually agreed that we would not exchange purchased Christmas gifts.  Know what? I was perfectly fine with that.  My gift to my family was slaving standing in my kitchen for several hours, making Austrian Goulash, Bavarian Semmel Knoedel (can you say that?) red cabbage, cherve' and an assortment of sausages.

I wanted to make a dessert that would look festive, and wouldn't be too difficult to make. After all, I had about four hours to create the entire menu.  I spotted this recipe in the most recent issue of Cuisine At Home Magazine.  I've never made a Red Velvet Cake, before, and I loved the idea of a White Chocolate Frosting.   This particular recipe uses buttermilk and vegetable oil, in lieu of butter.   I was banking that this combination would be essential components to a really moist cake.

I got a little nervous, because it took a lot of red food coloring so that the cake wouldn't be pink!  I had to dig in to my gel food coloring (for frosting), as I didn't have one full ounce of liquid food color.  That was a real challenge to get it to break the gel paste into the buttermilk.  At last, I mixed the buttermilk with vanilla and the food coloring, first,  since the recipe said it would help to avoid a huge mess. Ha! (More on that later.)

I confess.  I usually skip sifting cake dry ingredients. In this case, I sifted both unbleached flour and cake flour together.  This recipe listed 1/4 cup of unsweetened cocoa, baking soda, plus some espresso powder and salt.  Sift, sift, sift... done.  Last, but not least, I wisked all of the dry ingredients together.

To white sugar, I added three eggs, and beat it until white and fluffy -- about 5 minutes. Next, I slowly drizzled the vegetable oil until it was fully incorporated.  Alternating the dry ingredients...
...and the red buttermilk mixture.  I then added some white vinegar at the end.  I divided the batter into 2 8x8 square baking pans.  These were baked at 375 for about 35 minutes.
TIP: Whenever I bake cakes, I set two timers-- one for the time recommended, and a second one for about 10 minutes sooner.  I test each cake a little early from the recommended time, so that I don't risk over baking the cake. The cake in the metal pan baked much faster than the glass one.   Of course, you can bake the cakes in a round pan, but I wanted my photo to look like the one in the magazine (background of picture below).  About that mess...

Red dye is a mess!  You can see the magazine photo in the background.  Stunning, isn't it? Speaking of red dye-- if you don't like red dye, then don't use it.  I did a little bit of research on Red Velvet Cake.   Camps are divided on what a true definition of Red Velvet Cake is.  (If you're curious, you can click here for the story.)  I'm not afraid of a little food quality red dye, on occasion. Heck, I like maraschino cherries! Don't judge.  

I was relieved to see that my cakes didn't look pink. Let the cakes sit for about 10 minutes, and then remove to a wire rack.  While the cakes completely cooled, I made the frosting.

Cream cheese frosting is what I most often see with Red Velvet Cake. However, that's not a traditional frosting. Did you know that?  It's true!  A Cooked Vanilla Frosting is a more traditional frosting. I've made this before, with my favorite chocolate cake.   On medium heat, cook whole milk and flour together until it's thick.  Whatever you do, don't boil it and don't walk away! It thickens up super fast, and then you've got a mess.  Mine got a little lumpy (because I decided to clean up, and got distracted).  I ended up putting the milk/flour mixture through a fine sieve.

Cover the mixture with plastic wrap, to prevent a "skin" from forming over it. Put it in the fridge to cool.

I once took a Wilton cake decorating class. While I'm not a super-pro, I have learned a few tricks to make things a little easier.  I use a serrated knife to level off the one cake that rose higher than the other.   I bought a Cake Lifter, and I have to tell you that this prevents me from breaking my cakes whenever I transfer them.   

I struggled, a bit, with cutting off the edges of the square cake.  The edges turned out a little crispy an dark.  Not pretty.  It took some cursing patience, but I got the edges cut off so that it would reveal the pretty red color of the cake. 

TIP: When I cut a cake in half, I place it on a turning cake stand. I place a serrated knife in the middle, and slowly rotate the cake until the lines connect.  I keep rotating, while cutting in deeper.  Finally, my cake is cut in half and it's even. Otherwise, you can insert toothpicks to give you margins to cut.
I used 4 ounces of Ghirardelli White Chocolate, which is pretty thin.  I used the microwave, at about 30 seconds, to melt the chocolate; then I set it aside to cool.  In my stand mixer, I used two sticks of softened, unsalted butter and white sugar.

The melted chocolate and cooled flour/milk mixture is on standby.  Cream the white sugar and butter, until it's really fluffy-- about 7 minutes.  Add the chilled milk mixture and white chocolate, and beat on high speed until light and fluffy-- about five more minutes.

It's pretty amazing how the frosting whips into a whipped cream texture.  I tasted the frosting, and I felt it really needed vanilla, so I added about 1 teaspoon. Perfect.
NOTE: No, you don't have to add white chocolate.  I happen to love white chocolate, so that's what intrigued me most about this recipe.  I think I would have doubled the amount of white chocolate, though, as I thought it was barely detectable.

Using a vegetable peeler, I shaved the long (and very thin) side of the Ghiradelli bar.  A thick block of white chocolate would have made pretty and longer curls.   I also crumbled some of the cake trimmings, for decoration.

Piping an edge of frosting is the easiest way to fill all four layers.  Cuisine At Home suggested piping the entire surface-- however, I realized I'd run out of frosting really fast.

So, I "plopped" some frosting in the middle and spread it with an offset spatula.  I wasn't worried about crumbs, either. 

I was going to cut some wooden dowels (like I use for grilling shrimp etc.) but I decided to skip that process.  Here's the challenge-- this frosting is very soft!  The cake can easily turn into the leaning Tower of Pisa!  I sprinkled some cake crumbs on top, for decoration and then the white chocolate. Then, I immediately chilled the cake.   The frosting sets pretty quickly.

 More mess to cleanup. Sigh.  I put the cake into the refrigerator and got busy making dinner.

The cake definitely was a show-stopper at the dessert table.

The crumb of the cake definitely had a velvet texture, which is really how the cake got it's name.

The frosting did ooze over the edges a bit.  Next time, I think I'd leave a bit more of a cake edge, since this frosting down soften very quickly.

So, the moment of truth--  
TASTING NOTES:   The cake was very moist, and  I was happy with the fine crumb texture.  The color definitely was a beautiful red, and I thought it was visually appealing.   
Work Involved:  I thought this cake was a bit labor intensive, and certainly used a lot of dishes. Flavor:  My niece, I didn't realize before, adores Red Velvet Cake. She was so excited that I had made this, and I was so pleased that she was delighted.  
Let's start with me.  I was a bit underwhelmed with the flavor.  You see, I've never been a big fan of  Red Velvet Cake.  I think it's because I love adore white cake, and I like a rich dark chocolate cake as second choice-- as long as it has white frosting to tame the chocolate flavor.  Red Velvet Cake is a cross between a white cake and a tease of chocolate. At least that's my opinion.  I loved the frosting, which isn't cloyingly sweet.  In fact, I much prefer that over a cream cheese frosting (boo, hiss).  Out of five stars, I declared this cake to be a 3.5.  My niece, however, said this cake deserved 6 stars out of 5!  My son loved it, too. Was it worth it?  Anytime someone I love is happy with a recipe, then it was worth the effort. 

So, don't listen to my personal lackluster review.  Remember, I love white cake the best. If you love Red Velvet Cake, then I think you'd like this version.  It's got the moisture factor, and isn't super sweet.  Make a Cream Cheese Frosting, if you prefer. 

I sent my niece home with the majority of the cake.  I'm glad it made her very happy.  As always, a printable recipe card is at the end of this post.  I'm on a two-week vacation, and I can finally catch up with my back-log of recipes that I'd like to share with you.  Amen!

Next year, I'm going to to jump start my Christmas baking and homemade edible gifts a lot sooner. I'll box up my jars, and fancy ribbons, recipes and edible decorations that I bought-- all with the best of intentions-- until next year.  No matter what, the Spirit of Christmas was in the house.  I am thankful.  But now-- life goes back to normal, and less temptation to indulge in sweets should lessen. At least, I hope so!

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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sweet Potato Casserole, Redux-- and some of my Christmas menu to come

This year, I am a dismal failure about my Christmas Baking & Edible Gifts.  I had all kinds of plans, and had plenty of recipe ideas on my Pinterest boards. I bought the canning jars, plastic bags, fancy bows and strings. I stocked up King Arthur Flour, powdered sugar, dark and white chocolate, nuts, all kinds of sprinkles and fancy doo-dads.  But, the best of intentions fell flat.  I have a perfectly good excuse--

I work full-time, people!  I'm out the door at 6:15am, and home around 5-ish.  That is, if I don't stop for errands.  Then I get home closer to 6pm.  I cook dinner, read the mail, tidy up a little bit, and spend a little bit of time visiting food blogs. I rarely have time to watch TV programs that I've recorded.  By 8:30pm, I'm getting ready for bed and it's light's out!  Repeat cycle.

How do you food bloggers find time to create and post such beautiful Christmas recipes?  I want to know!  There. End of whining rant.

For our Thanksgiving Dinner, the star of the show was the Sweet Potato Casserole.  I made this recipe, last Thanksgiving, and it was well liked.   This year, my son asked if I would make sweet potatoes with marshmallows.  Well, I hadn't really planned on it, so I didn't have marshmallows.  It was the night before Thanksgiving, when he posed this question.  There was no way I was going to hit the grocery store battlegrounds of the Last Minute Thanksgiving Menu craziness.

Then, I remembered that I had a jar of Marshallow Creme.   I tweaked the original recipe a little bit. For one, I replaced the white sugar with all brown sugar-- and cut down on the amount a bit. It took a little bit of finesse, but I managed to spead the entire jar over the mixture of baked sweet potatoes, egg, milk, vanilla, and brown sugar.

   I also made the Pecan Streusel with a tad more flour, so that it didn't melt so much.  

VERDICT:   Suffice it to say that this is the new and improved version, and how I will make it this way from now on.  The marshmallow creme melted into a lovely gooey filling.  The pecan-streusel added a nice contrast with a nice crunch.  I really think that this "side dish" is a crustless sweet potato pie.  But, my family doesn't care.  I saw family members, who shall remain nameless, going back for more helpings.    I didn't get a final photo.  You know how it is, when the hungry guests are ready to eat. 

This Christmas Eve, the family has voted that I make a more traditional German-Style Dinner. So, our menu includes

 with Semmel Knoedel (bread dumplings).

I'll be making other traditional Bavarian dishes, like red cabbage (my husband and older brother loves this), and my son's request is homemade spaetzle.   We spend our Christmas Eve, honoring the memory of our Mutti.  My brother's play music, we sing Christmas Carols and we open our gifts-- in true European Christmas style.  You know,  I'm fine with that.  Because I'm working all the way until December 23rd, and I'm thankful that I can prepare a meal that is far less work than a Prime Rib Dinner.

As for the Christmas treats-- well, I'm T-6 days and sweating counting.   At the last stage, I think I'm looking more at making Peppermint Bark and some bar cookies.  That's a whole lot easier. In the meantime, I'll live vicariously through my fellow food bloggers. Y'all are making me wish I had the time to be as creative as so many of you are.

One day, I shall retire.  Unless, one of those weekly lottery tickets my husband buys hits the jackpot.  Dear Santa... are you listening?

I have lots of recipes to blog, though.  I have two weeks of vacation, starting this Friday. I'll get those uploaded-- and trust me...none of them have peppermint or pumpkin in them.  I'm going back to savory, simple, fast and good!

I always post a printable recipe card at the end of each recipe post. If you cannot view it, you might be using an older version of InternetExplorer. You should be able to view my recipe cards with Safari, Mozilla, Google Chrome and Internet Explorer.
If you still can't view the recipe card, all of my recipes are stored on Key Ingredient, by clicking here.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fluffy Eggnog & Vanilla Bean Pancakes

Two weeks until Christmas.  For kids, this may as well be two-hundred years until Christmas.  At what point in my life did the Christmas Countdown bring on the stress in me?  Isn't Christmas supposed to be that wonderful time of year?   Truth be told, it is.  I just can't seem to get my act together, by starting on this in October.

Today is the day that I'm turning on the Christmas music and I'm going to decorate the tree.  I need to come up with my game plan to bake cookies (who doesn't love cookies as a gift? Raises hand. Then the other.)  I have some ambitious ideas for other edible gifts.  But, I'm not saying what they are.  Just in case I run out of steam.  If I don't accomplish my goals, well gift cards are a wonderful solution. But, first, I need a hearty breakfast so that I don't eat the cookies, I'm about to bake.
There are those who love eggnog, and those who don't.  My husband doesn't. My son said he's never had it. I'm right in the middle--I can take it or leave it. Years ago, I made it from scratch. It's a bit of work, takes a lot of eggs, but the bourbon spiked eggnog disappeared from the punch bowl.  Then it hit me-- eggnog in pancake batter, instead of buttermilk!

I've posted numerous pancake recipes, because I much prefer to make them from scratch.  Pancake batter takes about five minutes to put together.  This easy recipe uses flour, baking powder, a pinch of salt-- and I added some freshly grated nutmeg. Whisk it together.  In a large measuring cup, I added 1 1/3 cups eggnog (you could use buttermilk if you belong to the "I hate eggnog" camp).  I decided to add one teaspoon of vanilla bean paste.  If you don't have any (I buy Singing Dog Vanilla Bean Paste at Whole Foods), use 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla.

Whisk two eggs, and 2 Tablespoons of melted and cooled unsalted butter.  Add the eggnog and whisk, then add to the dry ingredients.  Stir until just combined.  NOTE: I don't overwork my pancake dough, because I don't want to build up the gluten in the flour. This makes pancakes lighter and fluffier.  The batter will be fairly thick.

I like to prep my griddle with a light coating of vegetable oil, then I melt a small amount of butter, for flavor.  I also use a 1/4 cup measuring cup so that my pancakes are evenly sized.  The bottom of the measuring cup helps to spread the batter evenly.

The batter is thick, and the pancakes will puff up pretty high.  I carefully watched the griddle, so that it was about medium hot, and let these cook until I see bubbles forming. The batter is thick, so it took a good 2 minutes, before flipping them.

 In the meantime, I like to preheat my plates in a warm oven. 

...another minute should do it.

Only Pure Maple Syrup can do justice to pancakes. I firmly believe that. And butter, too.

While I'm being honest, pancakes aren't health food.  They're pure carbs.  That's why the men in my life love them.  That's why I make them.  On occasion.

Food porn. Just sayin'.

The moment of truth...

VERDICT:  Texture-wise, these delivered as  I had hoped. They were fluffy, light and these babies soaked up the syrup like nobody's business.  Flavor-wise-- you can clearly taste all the notes of eggnog.  Vanilla-custard, slight background of nutmeg and a bit sweet.  The truth is, my husband didn't like them. He still doesn't like eggnog. My son ate them, but remains undecided if he likes eggnog.  Me?  I'm the one who doesn't love pancakes as much as they do.  I loved them. Every single bite. It took me back to that Christmas Eve, when my family sipped my homemade eggnog and went back for more.  

So, if eggnog is your thing for the holidays...  give these a try.  Otherwise, substitute buttermilk for the eggnog, and these will do the trick for breakfast.  A printable recipe card is at the bottom of this post.

I'm turning off the laptop, because I have some Christmas chores to do.  Fa-la-la-la-la La-la-la-la!

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