Monthly Archives: December 2010

2010: The Year of the Dessert

Gelato

I set myself an ambitious goal for 2010: To find desserts that I like.  This was more difficult than it might appear at first glance, as I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, and I’m not much of a baker, either.  However, I am nothing if not tenacious in pursuit of my goals—when I can remember them, that is.  I confess that there were many, many times that I filled up on dinner and forgot to leave room for dessert.  But I did make an effort to taste more desserts, including trying gelato for the first time, and even baked a few myself.

Armed with some great cookbooks, especially Rustic Fruit Desserts: Crumbles, Buckles, Cobblers, Pandowdies, by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson, I started strong with a Caramelized Pear Bread Pudding.  I didn’t grow a sweet tooth, and I’m still not much of a baker, I’m afraid.  I doubt I will ever understand the attraction of unsalted butter or precise measurements.  But it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.  Here are some of the highlights from  The Dessert Initiative.

Tarte Tatin, a French classic with caramelized apples and puffed pastry, is still my go-to dessert.

Tarte Tatin

 

Arance all’Aperol, with its brilliant colors, provided a sweet taste of spring.

Arance all'Aperol

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Rosewater Pistachio Biscotti looked complicated, but turned out to be easy and delicious.

Rosewater Pistachio Biscotti

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This Strawberry Shortcake was rich and substantial, made with lavish amounts of cream and heaps of sun-ripened strawberries.

Strawberry Shortcake

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Making the shortcrust pie shell was nearly my undoing, but this Raisin Tart was an elegant dessert with an exotic pedigree.

Raisin Tart

 

On the more homely end of the spectrum, Gingered Pear Pandowdy was lumpy, bumpy, rustic, and an unqualified success.

Gingered Pear Pandowdy

 

And last, but most certainly not least, I want to leave you with this recipe for Portuguese Orange-Olive Oil Cake, with thanks to my friend Stella at The Witchy Kitchen.  This cake is a revelation, a poem, a masterpiece.  It is rich, moist, and dense.  The brightness of the orange juice and the earthy flavor of the olive oil balance each other and combine to make this cake something much greater than the sum of its parts.  I can tell you with assurance that it is good as soon as it has cooled, but keeps amazingly well and is even better a day or two later.  If it lasts that long.  If left alone with one of these cakes, I will stand at the counter and eat slice after slice, until I force myself to wrap it up and put it away out of sight.  Then I will come back for just one more slice.  And I don’t even like cake.

I guess this means I have learned something about desserts, and maybe I understand the people who love them, just a little bit more than I did a year ago.

May your New Year be sweet, and full of warmth and light!

Portuguese Orange-Olive Oil Cake

Portuguese Orange-Olive Oil Cake

(adapted from The Witchy Kitchen)

  • 1 3/4 cups Multigrain Flour Mix
  • 1 cup Sugar
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp Salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup orange juice
  • 3/4 cup olive oil
  • 1-2 tsp. orange zest

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray a bread pan with cooking spray.

In a bowl, mix the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl, whisk the eggs. Then add the oil, orange juice, and zest to the eggs and whisk well. Slowly pour the wet mix into the dry mix and gently stir until combined–do not over stir. Pour into bread pan and bake for about 45-50 min or until a toothpick comes out clean.

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Hot Buttered Rum

Comfort and Joy

You know what was really fabulous about this Christmas?

Everything!

We spent the holiday at Lake Tahoe.  Good-bye, soggy Seattle!  Hello, piles of snow and blue skies!   The sunshine alone might have been enough to induce euphoria.  But there were also the joys of good company, good food, and time enough to really rest.

We went on outings in the sparkling sunshine and thin air to marvel at the lake, and sipped hot drinks while watching skiers whiz by the lodge.  We crunched over frozen snow in the still, starry night to attend midnight mass.  There was a giant puzzle laid out on the coffee table, which eventually drew everyone in.

And Christmas movies.  It’s just not Christmas without watching A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart.  There was plenty of snuggling on the couch in front of the fire with a book.  I fell asleep at night under a fluffy heap of warm comforter, with fresh cold air flowing in the open window.  I made it a personal goal to eat as much chocolate and cheese as I possibly could, and I succeeded admirably, if I do say so.

We went out for Christmas dinner, and during the pleasant pre-dinner cocktail interlude, I had a Hot Buttered Rum.  It seems to me that hot alcoholic drinks are too often overlooked, languishing in the shadows while the icy martini-glassed cocktails get all the love.  Irish Coffee, a hot Whisky Mac, even just a cup of hot cocoa with a slug of spiced rum—whatever your fancy, a hot drink on a cold day is one of life’s simple pleasures to be savored.

To my way of thinking, the Hot Buttered Rum is the pinnacle of hot drinks.  I still remember the first time I had one, and how surprised I was that it tasted exactly like a Butter Rum Lifesaver. I am still delighted by that comparison, every single time.    It is sweet and rich and decadent.  You can wrap chilly hands around the hot mug and the drink will warm you inside and out, with a kick of rum and spices to put a little color in your cheeks.

You could probably buy hot buttered rum batter, but it is so easy to make, either in big batches that will keep in the freezer indefinitely or just a mug or two at a time, and the ingredients are of the common sort that almost everyone has on hand without a special trip to the store.

Just lay in an emergency bottle of rum, and you will be prepared for whatever weather this winter throws your way.

Hot Buttered Rum For One

  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • Dash each of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves
  • 6 oz boiling water
  • 2 oz dark rum

Combine butter, sugar, and spices in a tall hot beverage mug.  Add boiling water, and stir until dissolved.  Add rum.

Hot Buttered Rum For a Crowd

Batter:

  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 4 oz butter, room temp
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tsp nutmeg or mace
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients thoroughly. Refrigerate in a sealed air-tight container for up to two months. This mixture can also be frozen for up to one year before using. Makes eight servings.

Preparation:

  • 2 Tbsp refrigerated hot buttered rum batter
  • 6 oz boiling water
  • 1 1/2 oz dark rum
  • 1 Tbsp light cream (optional)

In a hot beverage mug, combine hot buttered rum batter with boiling water, stirring well until dissolved. Add in rum and cream, if using.

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Spirit of the Season

The Christmas Baskets went out on Saturday morning.  Sixty-four needy families in my neighborhood received all of the groceries they will need to cook their Christmas dinner.  The children each got a few presents, too.  That’s sixty four merry Christmases.

The thing about working with a food-based charity like Saint Vincent de Paul, the thing that keeps me going, at this time of year in particular when I’m exhausted, is the knowledge that we are meeting people’s most basic needs.  Everyone needs to eat.  Parents need food to put on the table for their children.  Getting food from people who can afford to share to those who need help is as simple and vital as can be.

In the years that I’ve been coordinating this project, I think I’ve seen it all–every kind of near disaster from snowstorms on delivery day to cranky donors (they’re human after all), from missing presents to missing volunteers.  And every kind of generosity.  Sponsors who reliably donate meals every year, volunteers who give up precious time during the busy holiday season, the local businessman/saint who donates pallets of fruits and vegetables.

This Christmas it’s one of our clients that I keep coming back to, when I think about generosity.  She’s a disabled woman, living alone in a subsidized apartment building.  We’ll call her Jane.  When Jane’s Thanksgiving basket was delivered, she asked whether SVDP could help her neighbor who had very little food–a blind woman who speaks almost no English, only Mandarin.  The volunteers came back and put a box together for her from our food pantry.

Last week, before the Christmas baskets went out, I called Jane.  She said that if SVDP could deliver a Christmas basket for her neighbor too, she would take it to her, and help her identify what was in each can or package of food before putting it away.  “I try to look out for her the best I can,” she said.  When the volunteers showed up at her apartment with the two Christmas baskets, Jane mentioned how much she appreciated the food we provided, because in addition to helping her blind neighbor, she had invited a few other shut-in neighbors from the building over for Christmas dinner.  Seven of them.  “They don’t have families,” she said.

Well, when the volunteers came back with that story, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of getting baskets loaded up and delivered, I had to stop for a minute.  We had delivered a relatively small basket to Jane–really just enough for her, and maybe it would stretch to feed one other person.  A small turkey roast, stuffing mix, a pie, some canned goods and a few fruits and vegetables.

I called Jane up.  “I hear you are cooking for a few neighbors this year,” I said.  “Could you use some more food?”  “Oh, that would be wonderful,” Jane said.  “Thank you!”

Back out into the cold morning those volunteers went, with smiles on their faces, carrying boxes and bags of food for Jane and her Christmas guests.  I like to imagine all eight of them, crowded into a small space perhaps, but enjoying the warmth of friendship and a holiday meal made with love.

Before I head off for my own holiday, I wanted to share this little gift with all of you–this story about a woman who exemplifies the spirit of the season.

Merry Christmas!
Love,

Rowdy

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They Puffed

It’s Thanksgiving and Christmas Basket season again.  Just like every year at this time, I am up to my eyeballs in coordinating this holiday charity project that provides the groceries that will make holiday dinners for needy families in my neighborhood, and Christmas presents for the children, too.  We helped 52 families at Thanksgiving.  And now we’re headed straight toward Christmas Basket delivery day like a runaway freight train with boxcars full of presents and turkeys and produce and volunteers and spreadsheets and…

You know that thing that happens when you have been working on something really difficult and time consuming and a deadline is looming, and you decide that you absolutely MUST clean the entire house from top to bottom, knit a sweater, and reorganize your spice cupboard?  Or in my remote past, assemble an entire Victorian dollhouse from a kit, when what I really needed to be doing was to finish my research so I could actually graduate from grad school.  I think you know what I’m talking about.

Well, something of that sort came over me a few weeks ago.  Out of the blue, I decided that it was time to master the art of the popover.  I have gone on record as saying that I’m not much of a baker.  And yet, it suddenly seemed of the utmost importance to not only make baked goods, but fussy, tricky baked goods of the sort that lead people to leave despairing pleas for advice in online forums.  I found a few recipes that looked good and promised to produce popovers that would reliably puff up into light, airy pastries.  I foolishly–if predictably—ruined the first batch by substituting cream for milk because I had cream and it sounded good.  I forced myself to comply with the next recipe, and still produced hockey pucks.

Then Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce came from the library.  I have heard many awed and reverent reviews of this book, and eagerly looked forward to seeing for myself.  I was leafing through the pages, reading bits here and there, admiring the beautiful pictures, when it occurred to me to look for a popover recipe.  There was indeed a recipe, one that looked wonderful and included helpful suggestions.  The recipe called for Boyce’s Multigrain Flour Mix, so I flipped to that page and saw that I already had three of the five flours, but a trip to the co-op would be needed for the other two.   Not that I minded more distractions from the Christmas Baskets!  Off to the co-op!

The Multigrain Flour Mix makes 4 cups, quite a bit more than is needed for the popovers.  I put the rest in the freezer, and I expect it will be perfect for making whole grain bread in the bread machine, or in muffins.

The popovers were ridiculously easy to make–a little bit like German Pancakes, but on a much smaller scale.  Just mix, pour into heavily buttered muffin cups, and bake.  And they puffed!  Oh, how gloriously they puffed.  They came out of the oven golden brown and as fluffy as cumulus clouds.

When pulled open, the popovers were hollow.  The outsides were crusty, and the insides a bit creamy.  More butter was hardly needed, but I slathered it on anyway, and a touch of blackberry jam.  Delicious.

These popovers are at their best fresh from the oven.  They would make an ideal Christmas morning breakfast, with a cup of coffee or cocoa after the presents and stockings have been opened.  And they are still quite edible if rewarmed in the oven later in the day, but will lose their light freshness quickly, so eat them all on day one.  That shouldn’t be too onerous of a task.

Multigrain Flour Mix

(from Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce)

  • 1 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1 cup oat flour
  • 1 cup barley flour
  • ½ cup millet flour
  • ½ cup rye flour

Measure all the flours into a bowl and whisk together

Popovers

(slightly adapted from Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce)

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 ¼ cups whole milk
  • ½ cup Multigrain Flour Mix
  • ½ cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 tbsp butter, melted and cooled slightly
  1. Place rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.  Place the muffin tins (unbuttered) in the oven to heat up.
  2. Measure the eggs, milk, flours, and salt into a bowl.  Measure half of the melted butter (2 tbsp) over the ingredients in the bowl.
  3. Using a hand mixer, mix the popover batter until combined, about 20 seconds.  Remove the muffin tins from the oven and brush every other cup liberally with butter.  Working quickly, fill each of the buttered cups three-quarters full with batter.
  4. Bake for 15 minutes.  Then, rotate the tins and lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Bake for 8-10 minutes more, or until golden brown.
  5. Take the tins from the oven, slide a sharp knife around the popovers to remove, and eat immediately.  Turn the oven temperature back up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and repeat with the remaining batter.

Makes one dozen popovers.


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Meatballs

At this time of year especially, as we settle in for a long, dark, rainy winter, and the demands of the Christmas season are cranking up, book club is a respite from storms both literal and metaphorical.  It is an island of rest, warmth, and good cheer.

Book club was at Mechele’s last week.  The book was Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy.  Mechele set a festive holiday table, and served a delicious meal, as always.  And there were presents!  Wonderful presents were exchanged.  But the present I want to talk about, the one that is important here, was Diana’s gift.  “We called him Bully,” she said, handing each of us a package of frozen hamburger wrapped in butcher paper and decorated with cascading ribbons.  “It’s grass-fed beef,” she continued.  “It would be good for meatballs…”

A pound of hamburger from a cow (or bull, to be precise!) that was raised on Diana’s farm, free-range and grass fed, slaughtered on site by a mobile butcher, then handed over bedecked in ribbons with the casual elegance that is quintessentially Diana…I was momentarily speechless with the beauty of such a gift.  Then I think there was squealing.

I didn’t wait long before following Diana’s suggestion about the meatballs.

Michael made his classic marinara sauce this weekend, and I rolled a couple dozen meatballs—enough for dinner, and some to spare for the freezer.

I have always subscribed to the baked meatball school of thought, putting a brown crust on meatballs in the oven before adding them to my sauce.  However, lately I have been reading recipes that call for dropping the raw meatballs directly into the simmering sauce, to cook gently and, so they say, emerge tender and delicious.

And because we like to do things the scientific way, we started half of the meatballs in the oven, turning them occasionally until crusty and brown, then finishing them in the sauce.  The other half went directly into the sauce.

The verdict?  Both were good.  Very good, in fact.  A classic, flavorful mouthful of the richness of beef and pork, enhanced but not overwhelmed by the other ingredients.  But I must admit to a slight preference for the meatballs that were simmered without baking.  They held their shape well, but were beautifully tender in texture, just as promised—a pleasure to eat.

I will still bake meatballs when they will be served on their own, but from now on, whenever there is marinara involved, my meatballs will be simmered.

Meatballs

  • ¾ cup dried breadcrumbs
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • ¼ lb mild Italian sausage
  • ¾ cup ground parmesan
  • 2 tbsp dried parsley flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 garlic cloves, pressed

Combine breadcrumbs and milk in a large bowl.  Add eggs and whisk to blend.   Add all remaining ingredients and gently mix until combined.

Roll mixture into golf-ball sized balls.

At this point, the meatballs can be refrigerated overnight, or frozen in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper, then stored in an airtight freezer container until ready to thaw and use.

To cook meatballs: Carefully distribute in a single layer in pot of sauce.  Bring to a simmer, then lower heat.  Cover and simmer until cooked through, about 20 minutes.

Makes about 24 meatballs.

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