Friday, December 31, 2010

Sweet Holiday Tradition

Growing up, the month of December seemed to exist as a mere countdown to Christmas Day; a day when treasures were ripped open making life instantly better. And, what a downer 7:00 Christmas Day would be; the gifts were opened, the meal was eaten and life went back to normal.  Many years later, I still love Christmas for the excitement of the new and the comfort of old traditions.  In our house, few traditions have had the staying power of baking day.

I have always baked Christmas gifts, however this was the first year that I involved my three year old.  With an unexpected chill in the air and Christmas carols blasting from the stereo, the youngest and I took to the kitchen for an afternoon of mixing and measuring.  One of our first creations were Dorie Greenspan's Speculoos; a delicious brown sugar cookie that seemed perfect for small gift bags.  There was only one problem; I used up all of my dried ginger on some stir fry the week before.  Since caution had already been thrown to the wind with a three year old sous chef, I decided that allspice would work just fine, as it turned out, it did.  With warm spices these cookies had a distinct 'Christmasy'  taste.   My only disappointment was my decision to use a 3 inch biscuit cutter which did not offer a very interesting shape.  Later that week, I picked up a mitten shaped cutter from Sur la Table and made another batch for family travelers...perfect!  Encouraged by our success, my young helper and I added Snickerdoodles to the prep list which with their cinnamon sugar coating were the perfect companion.

I have tried many Snickerdoodle recipes over the years and prefer the following as it gives the lovely chewy texture.

Recipe created by: Carole Clements

1/2 cup butter at room temperature
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
1/4 cup milk
3 1/2 cup flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup walnuts or pecans, finely chopped (I omitted these)
For the Coating
5 TB sugar
2 TB cinnamon

  1. With an electric mixer, cream the butter until light. Add the sugar and vanilla and continue until fluffy.  Beat in the eggs, then the milk. 
  2. Sift the flour and baking soda over the butter mixture and stir to blend.  Stir in the nuts, if using.  Refrigerate for 15 minutes.  Preheat oven to 375,  Grease 2 cookie sheets.  
  3. For the coating, mix the sugar and cinnamon.  Roll Tablespoons of the dough into walnut sized balls.  Roll in the sugar mixture.  You may need to work in batches.  
  4. Place dough balls two inches apart on the prepared baking sheets and flatten slightly.  Bake until golden, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.
These were amazingly popular cookies both among preschoolers and adults alike.  In the end, baking day not only gave the youngest and I a chance to indulge our Christmas spirit, but actually mark tasks off the holiday to-do list.  And, I must admit, watching our cookies being nibbled by family members throughout the week was a joy unparalleled.  Looking for a tradition to add to your list, or just an easy activity for last few days of Christmas vacation? Break out the flour and sugar... sweet tradition is waiting!  

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Louboutin Soup

Since we're on the subject of guilty pleasures, I feel obligated to address my shoe addiction.  Few things make me happier than sliding my manicured foot into a great shoe; and these shoes were worn to virtually every appropriate occasion in 2010.  I love the design, the heel and, of course, the perfectly painted red sole that reminds me of their fabulousness should I ever dare to forget.  A semi realist, my favorite thing to pair with fabulous shoes is a $12 vintage dress from a second hand  store. I majored in Economics after all. 

This week's French Friday selection was a potato and leek soup; a humble soup with great flavor, but on its own, a bit drab. Then I added the recommended truffle oil and instantly transformed this soup from meager to chic.  Truffle oil is the Louboutin shoe potato leek soup is the $10 dress and together they are fabulous.

Requiring a short list of relatively inexpensive ingredients this recipe was quite attractive.  One quick grocery trip and some basic prep work later and the house was filled with the delicious aroma of onions frying in beautiful butter.  
Once the potatoes and leeks joined in with the stock, I was able to leave my vegetables to simmer and tackle the latest list of holiday chores. A mere forty-five minutes later I had a beautiful lunch that not only knocked the chill from my bones, but made me hunger for a trip to Paris with my expensive shoes in tow. 

*For this and other fantastic recipes, purchase a copy of Around my French Table available via My Loves on Amazon.  Visit French Fridays with Dorie and read what other members cooked up this week.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What's your guilty pleasure?

I'm not a favorite food person; I'm a food that fits the mood person.  And, since my moods swing high and free, on any given night, there is no telling what dinner might be.  Our house concentrates more on healthy balance than healthy eating; in short I make no excuses for our culinary guilty pleasures. Cheeseburgers with truffle oil, Heineken battered catfish or my ultimate weakness, pizza.  In Houston, Pinks Pizza is hands-down the best pizzeria.  Though I was once a weekly customer, I recently moved these creations in house and added a brick oven to my backyard wish list.  Thursday nights are devoted to our Italian creation that begins  with Dellallo's spicy garlic and pepper sauce, and adds pancetta, diced yellow tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and a generous handful of arugula.

This weekend I had an extra pizza dough ball, leftover bacon, and a hodge podge of vegetables from the farmers market. I give you autumn on a crust:

Fall Pizza:
Recipe Created by: Lori Pierce

1 pound prepared pizza dough (recipe below)
4 slices thick cut bacon, diced
1 leek thinly sliced
1 butternut squash, peeled, cubed and roasted until tender*
4 ounces smoked mozzarella, sliced
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced
olive oil
sea salt
  1. Preheat oven and pizza stone to 450 degrees.
  2. In a medium skillet, cook the bacon until crispy.  Transfer to paper towels and let drain.
  3. Toss the butternut squash cubes in olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Roast in the oven until tender; about 10 minutes.  Remove from oven and set aside. 
  4. Heat a scant TB of olive oil in a medium skillet.  Sauté leeks until softened.  Add the butternut squash and stir to combine.  
  5. Spread the leek mixture atop the prepared pizza dough.  Top with mozzarellas and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. 
  6. Bake until cheese is melted and crust is golden brown, 10-12 minutes.  

Hosting a girl's night in, or perhaps a casual New Year's Eve? What better way to savor a night of gossip than with homemade junk food? 

Every pizza deserves a good crust.  I have tried at least five different recipes, and always return to this one courtesy of Food Network Magazine's May 2009 issue. I make a few batches at a time, slice the dough balls in half as directed and keep in the freezer for last minute indulgences.

Pizza Dough:
Recipe Created by: Food Network Magazine
3 3/4 cup AP flour
1 TB sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/3 cup warm water
1 package yeast
3 TB olive oil
  1. Combine flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a mixer fit with a dough hook.  Make a well and pour in yeast.  Add the water and let yeast bloom for 2-3 minutes.  
  2. Begin kneading dough with the dough hook adding olive oil as you mix.  
  3. Once the dough has come together, brush with olive oil and place in a large bowl.  Cover with plastic and let rise until doubled in size; approximately an hour and half.  (I use rapid rise yeast which reduces this time to about an hour)  
  4. Punch down dough and cut in half.  Form into two dough balls; each recipe utilizes one dough ball.   If you are going to use the dough right away, prepare as follows.  Otherwise, cover dough balls in plastic and place in the refrigerator or freezer. 
  5. Turn out dough on a well floured surface.  Roll into a circle and place on pan with 1-inch hanging over the side.  Roll the excess into a crust and brush entire dough with olive oil.  Prick all over with a fork and place in the oven until it just begins to brown; 5-7 minutes.  
  6. Remove from the oven, and top with favorite toppings.  Return to the oven for 10-12 minutes until well-browned and cheeses are melted.  Enjoy! 
So, I ask again.... what's your guilty pleasure??

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cure your holiday blues!

After attending a fabulous Christmas party, the husband and I left the cold temperatures of the North and returned to a surprisingly chilly South.  Adding to our week of gray weather were deadlines, finals and the inevitable commitments of the holiday season; it was not long before we resembled the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.  Determined to elevate my mood, I flipped through Dorie Greenspan's Around my French Table and quickly added her Beef Daube to our weekly menu.  After minimal prep and the lovely stress release of using a cleaver, I slid a bubbling pot of goodness into the oven certain that I had found the cure to holiday funk.  Perhaps it was the memories of my grandmother's beef stew that elevated my mood, or, perhaps it was the two and half hours of braising time that I spent sipping red wine, flipping through holiday photo books and listening to the wonderful yet horrid sounds of the season offered by AT&T U Verse. 

Isn't it fantastic when you have a good meal and a life lesson all at once? After cooking this beef in the recommended Central Region Syrah, I may have discovered why my beef stews and stracottos have  been mediocre; I always cooked them in a Cabernet.  The light taste of Syrah combined with the onions and shallots softened in bacon grease were the makings of a beautiful broth with a deep and smoky flavor.  After devouring my bowl and sopping up the broth with a fresh piece of bread I sat back full of both good food and a Christmas spirit.  
All in all, this dish requires the effort of a crock pot meal yet gives the bragging rights of French cuisine.  Feeling the holiday stress?  I invite you to slide your own beef daube into the oven. What better way to let your heart be light.

*For the Beef Daube and other fantastic recipes, purchase a copy of Around my French Table available via My Loves on Amazon.  Visit French Fridays with Dorie and read what other members cooked up this week.