Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas Recap: Eggnog French Toast & Chilled Christmas Punch


I hope everyone had a great holiday season! My husband and I made the trip down to Illinois for Christmas. The weather caused us to change our travel plans a bit and added about two hours to the drive down, but we arrived safe and sound and had a wonderful Christmas with my family.

Life has been a little crazy the past few weeks so I’m a bit behind on posts. I have a couple of recipes from before Christmas, but I wanted to get these two posted since they’re relevant to the season. Christmas is my favorite time of year. I love the music, the traditions, the hunt to find a gift that will make the recipient smile with joy (the crowds in the stores and parking lots I could do without though). But it’s all over too fast. We spend so long preparing for it and in a matter of hours, it’s done. It’s kind of like cooking. Some things require quite a bit of preparation, but once they’re on the table, they don’t last long. Such was the case with the Eggnog French Toast. The preparation wasn’t difficult; in fact, this was one the easiest recipes I’ve made, but it needs to be refrigerated overnight so plan ahead if you want to prepare this for breakfast. Like Christmas, this meal was worth the wait. I am not a fan of eggnog and I loved this French toast. It doesn’t have an overpowering flavoring, but is sweet enough to make you sit back and savor the taste. My family decided this recipe would definitely become a new holiday tradition.

We also fell in love with the Christmas punch. It’s an interesting combination of flavors that is instantly refreshing. There is no alcohol in this punch so it’s great for the whole family, but if you wanted to make it an adult beverage, we all thought either vodka or rum would be a good addition. But be careful, this is one of those drinks that goes down easy so it wouldn’t take long to get pretty tipsy.

Cooking at my parents’ house can be a dangerous endeavor because they have three large dogs that love to be wherever you are. And in the kitchen, this usually means sprawled out on the floor beneath where you’re trying to cook. When you try to step over them, they have a knack for always lifting their heads or standing up as soon as you are precariously positioned above them (typically with a pan of hot food in your hands). They force you to pay attention to what you’re doing and watch every step you take. Not a bad thing when you’re in the kitchen.

The day before we were supposed to leave, flurries turned into a winter storm warning that dropped 10 inches of snow. The dogs had fun searching for toys buried in the snow and we got to witness my dad’s unique double shovel technique for clearing the driveway. But the time finally came to dig out the car, pack it up and head back to Minnesota.

Ryan and I kept hoping that someone graciously came over and plowed out our driveway while we were gone. No such luck. Instead, we got home at 11:00pm to a driveway buried beneath a foot of ice-covered snow with a 2-foot berm of solid ice at the end from the snowplow. We parked in the street, dug out a trench, put the car in 4-wheel drive and slid into the garage. The next day we also discovered several large branches from the behemoth pine tree in the back yard had fallen. The entire day was spent shoveling, breaking down branches, and trying to convince Murphy to come inside to warm up his feet (he tried to pick all four feet off the ground at once because they were so cold, but was having too much fun playing in the tree carnage and attacking the shovel monster to go inside).

Finally, the lure of his Christmas loot won out and he came inside to play with his new toys. Santa Paws was very good to both Murphy and Chico (he must not have seen the holes in the backyard or in the wall) and they were both overwhelmed with excitement when they opened their presents. Yes, I wrap presents for my pets. If you could have seen the enthusiasm with which each of them tore into their gifts, you’d understand why.

After a long day of unpacking and winter yard work, we all passed out before our heads even hit the pillows. Murphy was happy to be home in his own bed without the incessant barking of dogs disturbing the vision of sugar-plums dancing in his head. Another Christmas has come and gone. Soon, the lights will be down, the stockings will be packed up and stored away, and the only thing we’ll be left with is the snow and ice from the Christmas storm. Even though radio stations start playing holiday music the day after Thanksgiving and stores put up their decorations shortly after Halloween, it all goes by too fast. Christmas brings a feeling of joy and a sense of hope that, this year especially, is so important. I find myself staring into the dawn of not only a new year, but a new decade and wonder where it will take me. After nearly a year of unemployment and the recent news that my husband’s company will also be having layoffs in the next few weeks, I’m just not ready to let go of that hope and happiness from the Christmas season. Thursday night, I’ll raise my glass to toast the new year and instead of making resolutions for 2010, I’ll make myself a promise to enjoy every moment. If I’ve learned anything this holiday season, it’s that it all goes by too quickly and we need to enjoy this journey, not rush to get to the destination…whatever that is.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Perfect Balance of Bitter & Sweet: Cranberry Bars

Last week was a marathon week of cooking and I’m still catching up on posting the results of those endeavors. This recipe for Cranberry Bars is one that I made for my husband’s pot luck last Friday and seeing as how he came home with an empty tray and the regret of not saving some for us, I think they went over very well.

When I think of “bars” I usually think of a rich, dense dessert like the caramel bars, however, these are more like a cake with a rich cream cheese frosting. I would describe them as the perfect balance of bitter and sweet – much like my chinchilla, Chico. I promised I’d write more about him and he recently provided the perfect opportunity.

I got Chico about five years ago through I had recently moved to Minnesota and was in dire need of some animal companionship. Since I was living in an apartment, my options were pretty limited. Through a recommendation from my parents’ vet, I began to research chinchillas and just happened to find one up for adoption down the street from where I lived.

Chico came from a home where he was abused by other chinchillas so it took a while to earn his trust. After six months of sitting with him and tempting him with raisins, he finally let us pet him for longer than a passing graze. It was totally worth the wait, he’s the softest thing I’ve ever felt. I wanted nothing more than to bury my face in his fur, but he wasn’t going to allow that kind of contact.

Chico has his own room in our house and we let him out of his cage to play (there’s a baby gate on the door so that he’s confined to his room). Chinchillas can’t get wet, they require a dust bath to clean themselves and need to bathe often. If we don’t visit Chico at least every other day, he gets quite angry. Ryan and I have dubbed this behavior “chin-tude.” For such a little critter, Chico has quite the personality and a wide range of sounds that let us know what level his chin-tude is currently at.

Click here for a link to a site that has clips of chinchilla sounds and what they mean.

When Chico is in one of his “moods,” we can usually count on him taking out his frustration on us either through his chortles or by little nips on our hands. He never bites, it’s just more of a warning that he’s not happy about being forgotten and is demanding no less than our undivided attention. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy at the arrival of Murphy who not only took away some of that attention, but is also rather noisy during the day when Chico sleeps. Murphy, on the other hand, loves Chico and thinks it’s pretty cool that we let a scrabbit (squirrel + rabbit) live in the house.

The other day, I let Chico out to play while I sat on the other side of the baby gate and wrapped Christmas presents. This, apparently, was not enough attention because this is what he did to amuse himself while he was out:

He can be a bitter little creature, but he can be unbelievably sweet as well. When I sit with him, he will curl up on my lap and stay as long as I pet him. One night I sat with him in my lap, reading a book and running my fingers through his silky hair for almost two hours.

And last summer, I finally got my chance to rub his fur all over my face. He had to go to the vet for an eye check-up, a trip that I was not excited about because he HATES being picked up and placed into his cat carrier (that’s what we use to transport him). But I think the entire trip scared him so much that he was literally petrified. When we got to the vet, he didn’t move. I picked him up out of the carrier and he sat frozen in my arms. He even let the vet put him in a little cup to be weighed! I was shocked. I decided to seize the opportunity and rubbed him against my cheeks. The vet looked at me like I was nuts. I told her Chico’s history, how long it took us to even be able to pet him, and how during that entire time I wanted nothing more than to cuddle the softest creature on earth, but never could. She smiled, reported that he was healthy, and told me to take as long as I needed with my pet.

Cranberries are a lot like a chinchilla with a bruised ego: they can be pretty bitter, but give them enough sugar and you’ll want to savor every moment you’re with them.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Birthday Ryan!: Lady Washburn Cake with Peppermint Marshmallow Icing


Friday was my husband’s birthday and I told him he could choose any cake from the box for his birthday cake. He couldn’t have chosen a more festive cake for the season. I had never heard of the Lady Washburn Cake before and when I searched the internet for recipes and photos, I found nothing.  So it remained a mystery until I saw and tasted the finished product.

If you’re looking for a quick cake to make for an occasion, this isn’t it. It took me a good part of the day to complete. The cake itself isn’t difficult, but the frosting takes a certain level of precision that I’m not sure I attained. It also required another new addition to my arsenal of kitchen equipment: a candy thermometer.

 The icing directions instruct you to “boil sugar, water and cream of tartar until syrup spins a 6-inch thread when dropped from a spoon (242 degrees F).” Sounds easy enough right? I never spun a thread of any length and while I was focusing on that, the temp of the syrup rose above 260 degrees F. The frosting was really sticky, but once the entire cake was frosted and it cooled, it formed a shell over the cake. I was really worried about that, but when we cut into it after a delicious dinner with my husband’s parents at one of our favorite restaurants, Brasa, the Mmmmms and Ahhhhhhs put my mind at ease.

This is a really good cake. The cake itself is light and moist with just a hint of chocolate flavor. And the peppermint is the perfect companion to that gentle flavor. It would be a great dessert to serve for a Christmas or New Year’s dinner. I have no idea what the history is for this recipe, but it has definitely found a place in our family’s holiday traditions. And hopefully by the next time I make it, I’ll have figured out how to properly prepare a boiled icing.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Decadence During A Snowstorm: Caramel Bars (dedicated to my Aunt Judy)


We survived the first snowstorm of the season! Much to my husband’s dismay, Minneapolis was spared from the worst of it. He kept watching the scrolling school closings hoping to see that all of the Twin Cities metro area was closed and no one should go to work. No such luck. Instead he woke up early Wednesday to fire up the snow thrower and clear the driveway so that he could join the rest of the population in the parking lot on the highways.

The first real snow always makes me think of the beginning of the movie The Snowman when Raymond Briggs (the author/illustrator of the book the movie is based on) walks through a crunchy, frozen field with a twilight sky creating silhouettes of skeletal trees in the background and says:

“I remember that winter because it brought the heaviest snow I had ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long and in the morning I awoke in a room filled with light and silence. The whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day and it was on that day I made The Snowman.

(Click here to watch the clip)

It is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies and the song Walking in the Air (sung by Peter Auty) is truly enchanting. Christmas isn’t Christmas without it. The other reason I love that introduction is that it’s always amazing to hear what inspired someone to create something (book, movie, song, etc…). Sometimes we are so quick to dismiss our ideas as “not good enough” and throw them away before we even give them a chance to breathe. It’s encouraging to know that something as simple as a snowstorm can inspire someone to create a magical story that will bring Christmas joy for many, many years.

I thought this snowy afternoon deserved something sweet so I made the Caramel Bars my husband requested for his pot luck at work on Friday. If you want a truly decadent treat that will literally make you drool as much as Murphy does on Taco Tuesday nights at our house, make these. I believe this recipe is pretty close to, if not exactly the same as, the one my Aunt Judy used to make for us when we were kids. We would beg her to make them when we saw her and always found reasons why she needed to send us a batch (we did well in school, we won a game, it was Friday). I’ll never forget the time she dropped off brownies and before we had time to devour them, our dog Buck snuck up on the counter and ate the ENTIRE batch. How he did not fall over dead of chocolate poisoning I will never understand. Although, this is also the same dog that once snuck into Easter baskets and consumed an entire chocolate rabbit, jelly beans, and several Cadbury Eggs complete with their tinfoil wrapping. He had a stomach of steel.

Although, I didn’t need these sinfully delicious bars to be reminded of my aunt, I always think of her frequently during the holiday season. When I was a kid, she and I had a tradition: every year she took me to Chicago to see either A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker (we rotated every year). We got all dressed up, went to a nice dinner, and then the theater. I can still taste the duck dinner I had one year at The Drake. It was one of the best meals I’ve ever had and to this day I think my mom is still jealous that I got to eat there. I loved those trips with my aunt and they are some of my most cherished memories.

My aunt and I are very similar: we both love to read, we both love horses, and we both love to travel. In fact, I think my aunt is partially responsible for my passion for horses. When I was a kid, she owned horses and would take me to the barn with her and in the summer we’d ride at her cabin in Door County, WI. Somewhere we have a picture of when we rode bareback over jumps – together…on the same horse (where did my sense of adventure go? I can’t imagine doing that now!). Having so much in common always makes getting together fun and we never run out things to talk about. Sadly, however, life gets busy and since I moved away I haven’t seen her as often as I’d like. But I’d like her to know that I’m thinking about her and that Caramel Bars never touch my lips without her memory popping into my head. And that every Christmas, when I see the advertisements for A Christmas Carol, I remember our trips and am so thankful to have had such an amazing aunt who shared those experiences with me.

Sometimes a snowstorm is so much more than a snowstorm. One might lead to the creation of a memorable Christmas book/movie. And another might cause someone to be thankful for taking a chance on an idea. I stared at this recipe box for over a month before I started this blog and even as I prepared my first post, I considered scrapping the idea. Now that I’m over a month into the project, I’m not only thankful I took the chance on it, but I recognize how much it has changed my life in a short time. Instead of wallowing in the misery of being broke, unemployed and feeling like my life is going nowhere, I’m making incredible food and being reminded of all the wonderful things in life, such as my Aunt Judy. Someday I hope to spend another Christmas with her in Chicago where we will go to a delicious dinner and see A Christmas Carol. Only this time it will be my treat as a thank you for all the amazing memories she has given me. And when my dream of owning a hobby farm with horses comes true (I’m still trying to convince my husband this is a good idea), I’ll invite her up for a ride and once again thank her for the memories. The tandem bareback jumping, however, I think will need to remain a memory.  

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It’s Beginning To Smell A Lot Like Christmas: Banana Drop Cookies & More Apple Butter

This week was all about Christmas decorations and finishing my holiday shopping. I attempted to extend my creative courageousness outside of the kitchen and put together a window box display with evergreen branches, pine cones and berries. I’m pretty pleased with the outcome.

A sudden deep freeze has descended upon Minnesota (it was 12 degrees when I got up this morning) so it was a good weekend to stay inside. My first goal was to find extra storage for all the new kitchen equipment I’ve acquired as a result of this project. My kitchen is a small step up from a galley kitchen. It’s tiny. I have 8.75 square feet of useable counter space. There is an additional 5 square feet, but it’s currently taken up by a microwave because the one above my oven decided it no longer wanted to work. I also have a small table that usually becomes the staging area for ingredients before I begin to cook.
This weekend, I dragged out a set of old bookshelves, moved around some furniture in my office/library room and set up a Found Recipe Box area. Hopefully it helps relieve my tiny kitchen from some of the extra burden it has been carrying the past few weeks. One of my favorite additions to the shelves is a card I got from some friends who moved out to the East Coast last fall. They are big fans of the blog and encouraged me to “keep up the shenanigans in the kitchen” because they love to read about my adventures. I keep trying to convince them to move back so they can share in my adventures, but so far I have been unsuccessful. 

When it’s cold out, warm cookies always sound good so I decided to try the Banana Drop Cookies. While I was mixing up the dough I got a phone call from Justin, one of the friends who moved away. He was in town and wanted to swing by to say hello. I told him it was perfect timing because by the time he got here, the first batch of cookies would be coming out of the oven. When he arrived at our house, Murphy was literally shaking with excitement. Our friend Justin is one of Murphy’s best friends – I think it’s because he always seems to be dressed up when he comes to our house and Murphy just can’t resist adding a layer of gold hair to everything Justin is wearing. Lucky for Murphy, Justin likes dogs.

While we were catching up, the timer rang and I pulled the first batch of cookies from the oven. I wasn’t sure what to expect because the dough was really sticky. The recipe said to add extra flour if needed and I added an additional ¼ cup, but it didn’t reduce the stickiness. The cookies are dense and cake-like and I think Justin described them best when he said they “are like scones that don’t crumble when you bite into them.” But they are delicious banana nut scone-like cookies. Everyone gave them a thumbs up.  

Sadly Justin wasn’t able to stay long so I packed up a bag of cookies for him to take home and tried one more time to convince him to move back. I was, yet again, unsuccessful. But hopefully the cookies were a nice reminder of Minnesota and a tasty treat for the flight home.  

I also decided to make another batch of apple butter this weekend. I got a new official canner with a jar rack from Fleet Farm so I wouldn’t burn my fingers. Fleet Farm is awesome, it’s like Target except you can also buy building supplies, deer urine (I was horrified by that until I learned it’s for hunters) and horse saddles (this will come in handy when my dream of owning a horse – specifically a Friesian – comes true). Plus, all of their pet supplies are a lot cheaper than the big pet supply stores. It, like Target, also seems to have a $25 cover charge because I don’t think we’ve ever left the store with a bill cheaper than that. 

The canner worked like a dream. And the added benefit of making apple butter is that it makes the whole house smell like Christmas. Something about the combination of cinnamon and nutmeg just reminds me of Christmas. While Murphy kept vigil by the mouse house he discovered outside and my husband watched football, I lit the Christmas tree, turned on Christmas music, and took a deep breath full of the smell of Christmas while I contemplated all the baking I need to do this week. There's a cookie exchange, my husband has a pot-luck at work, and my husband’s birthday is this weekend (he got to choose his birthday cake from the box). It will be an adventurous, sweets-filled week! And since we are going to get snowed in on Tuesday (6-12 inches was the last I heard…yuck) it will be the perfect time to stay in the kitchen and bake.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Now We’re Cooking With Gas: Butterscotch Oaties


We had a bit of excitement at our house last night. We had a gas leak. The gas company came this morning to dig up the street and our front yard and then drill a hole through our foundation to add a new line. Murphy thought this was the best day ever – constant excitement out in the front yard and a man who kept coming inside to pet him (luckily he loved dogs). Murphy went back and forth between the front window where he sat barking on his “throne” (my ottoman that I haven’t used in 3 years since he claimed it as his own as soon as he was big enough to get on it) and the back door when the Gas Man came in to check on something in the basement and say “hi” to the dog. I have a feeling Murphy was jealous that I let strangers dig a big hole in the front yard and he always gets yelled at for doing the same thing in the back yard. 

I was a little concerned, however, when one of the men who arrived to fix the gas leak walked around to investigate the yard with a lit cigarette in his mouth. Sadly, I’m not kidding. I considered grabbing my valuables, packing up the dog and the chinchilla (yes, I have a chinchilla too, I’ll talk more about him in another post), throwing it all in the car and driving far away before he blew up my house. But I trusted that he knew what he was doing and he wouldn’t willingly blow himself up. Thankfully, I was right.

The ground hasn’t frozen yet, but today was one of the coldest of the season so it wasn’t pleasant sitting in a house with no heat and windows open to air out the smell of gas as they reconnected the line. So as soon as the holes were filled in, the gas was back on and my toes had thawed out, I decided it was time to watch the first Christmas movie of the season and make cookies!

Butterscotch Oaties aren’t a traditional Christmas cookie, but they’re easy to make and a nice treat on a cold, dreary winter afternoon. I recommend making the batter into balls (about one inch thick) and lightly pressing them onto the cookie sheet. They cooked better when they were a little thicker. If they’re too thin, they become kind of lacey when they bake and break apart. 

While Murphy was passed out recovering from a busy day of barking, I turned on the Christmas lights, sat on the couch with a warm cookie and watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (one of my favorites). Despite the early morning drama, it was a great start to the Christmas season.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Meat, Cheese, and More Meat: Meat Loaf (Italian Style) & Meat Balls


We were having a bit of a sweets overload in my house so we decided to balance it out with some meat, or in this case, a brick of meat. 

I always thought of meatloaf as a solid hunk of meat covered in a ketchup sauce. This Italian version breaks the meat in half with a layer of cottage cheese and mushrooms and doesn’t have sauce on top. It’s an interesting flavor, but sadly, this is the first recipe in the box that we haven’t been crazy about. Maybe it was just the post-long-holiday-weekend blues, but it was a mediocre meal compared to everything else we’ve tasted. Murphy, on the other hand, was a huge fan. If you could measure an approval rating by the length of drool hanging from a dog’s mouth, this one would be off the charts. And Murphy doesn’t drool for just anything. His two favorites are tacos and brats. And now Italian-style meatloaf can be added to that list. 

I debated whether or not to post the pictures of this one because, honestly, it looks really gross. I tried to think of a way to decorate the plate to make it more appealing, but there’s just no way to dress up meatloaf. Trust me, it tastes better than it looks.

There was also a meatballs recipe on the bottom of the card, but we consumed enough beef for a while so I didn’t make that one. Now, I think it’s time for more sweets!