Friday, November 18, 2011

6 Days and Counting: Cranberry Citrus Compote and a Shiny New Toy

We're less than a week before Thanksgiving, but the Big Deal Meal is right on schedule.  Last night I made the Cranberry Citrus Compote that you see on the left, recipe from Fine Cooking here.  The cranberry compote is chilling out in the garage refrigerator, and all I need to do on Thanksgiving is stir in some chopped scallions right before serving.


This recipe is incredibly easy.  You can even have your kids make it, although mine were already in bed by the time I started.  You just mix fresh cranberries, lemon zest, orange juice, and granulated sugar together, dump it into a 9" x 13" glass baking dish, drizzle orange juice over the top, and then bake it in the oven for about a half an hour until the sugar dissolves and some of the berries pop open.  It's so much more flavorful than anything that comes out of a can, and just as effortless when it comes time to serve your Thanksgiving dinner.

-- Wait!  I forgot!  Two finely chopped shallots (in case you don't know, a shallot is like the Frankenstein vegetable child of an onion and a head of garlic) get stirred into the cranberries with the zest and the sugar.  Normally, I would have chopped up the shallots with a paring knife or a chef's knife, but this time I remembered that I own this handy little miniature food processor contraption.  I usually forget about the convenience of food processors unless the recipe specifically instructs me to use one, but every time I do, I marvel at how well they work and how much FASTER they are. 

So, if you read my previous Thanksgiving meal posts, you know that I had also planned to make an Appleberry Pie this week.  My sister sent me a nearly-identical recipe from another cookbook that she swears by, and I did some more research about the pros, cons, and recommended procedures for freezing unbaked pies.  I laid out all my ingredients, then I paced around the kitchen for awhile and thought of other things that I could do instead of pie making.  I'm such a scaredy-cat when it comes to pie! 

I finally got up the courage to take the Pie Crust Plunge yesterday morning.  My recipe calls for making the crust with a food processor, which I've never tried before.  So I hauled out the 7-cup Cuisinart that we got as a bridal shower gift thirteen years ago, set it on the counter, and then looked at it dubiously.  I sent some frantic text messages to Janice the Manice, because she is a pie wizard.  She said my food processor is "probably fine."  Then I went online and did some more research about the proper food processor capacity for making a double pie crust.  Most resources recommended a minimum 12 cup capacity, almost double the size of mine.  I also read recommendations of sharp blades (my food processor blade was even duller than my knives) and powerful motors, which tend to be a given with larger capacity food processors.  My old food processor also had little hairline fractures in the plastic bowl caused by a certain someone trying to force the bowl into place incorrectly.

So, did I need  a new food processor?  Probably not.  Whatever.  Look what followed me home from Williams-Sonoma:

Cuisinart Elite Die-Cast 16 c. food processor, photo from Williams-Sonoma

Let me introduce you to the Cuisinart Elite Die-Cast 16 cup food processor from Williams-Sonoma!  My new food processor is cool because:

1. One food processor, with three different bowl sizes!  There's a 4 1/2 cup bowl, a 13 cup bowl, and a 16 cup bowl.  I'm planning to use the 13 cup bowl for my pie crust, but the 16 cup bowl will really come in handy when it's time to puree the Buttercup Squash Soup.  Also, remember my amazing rediscovery that food processors chop vegetables faster than I can chop them with a knife?  There are so many recipes that I don't make as often as I would like because prepping all the ingredients takes so long.  I had forgotten that food processors can slice vegetables nearly instantaneously, to exactly the thickness you want, with no danger of cutting yourself with the knife.  You can grate a block of cheese instantly with a food processor, too -- it took me forever to grate all the cheese for homemade baked macaroni and cheese last week.  I am resolving to put the new food processor to work on all these jobs as frequently as possible.  With three different bowls at my disposal, there won't even be the fuss of washing out the bowls between ingredients for most recipes.

2. The Cuisinart folks have addressed all of my grievances against the older food processor model.  For instance, with this new food processor, the knife blade stays in place until I release it, so it won't fall out when I'm pouring out the soup and splatter food all over the kitchen.

2. With the older food processor, I had a knife blade and two sharp discs to store somehow without creating a hazard in a dark cupboard.  The new food processor comes with a cute storage case that holds everything safely, also making it easy to find the parts you need.

3. The new food processor has a seal on the lid so liquids don't squirt out at the top and run down the sides, oh so much fun to clean.

I told Bernie I wanted the new food processor to live out on the kitchen counter, to remind me to use it.  Bernie says he would rather look at an empty counter.  He pulled the old "I want to enjoy looking at my granite" card.  So the food processor is going to sit out on my counter for now, while I get used to using it, and then when I get tired of looking at it and find a space for it in my cupboard, then I might put it away.

Tomorrow is Saturday, and it's going to be another busy weekend.  I'm definitely going to make the Appleberry Pie tomorrow, now that I have a shiny new tool to bolster my confidence, and I will also make the roux for the gravy and do some additional grocery shopping for perishables.  I'll be supervising Lars's work on his science project and helping Anders get started with a book report project, fighting the never-ending laundry scourge, and might even be hauling out some holly this weekend as well.  Our tradition has always been to start decorating our (artificial) Christmas trees on the Friday after Thanksgiving so the house is decorated for the start of Advent, but this year we'll want to spend that time relaxing with our company.  Although I'm the first one to complain about Holiday Encroachment, it really makes more sense to decorate the house right before we have guests instead of waiting until after everyone has left.  I also know that we are going to spend some time teaching the puppy dogs the Rules of the Christmas Trees (such as Ornaments are Not Chew Toys, and No Urine Marking the Christmas Trees) and keep an eye on them while they are getting used to the decorations.  If you have dogs, do they leave your Christmas decorations alone?  I welcome any suggestions.  Well, we'll just have to see how the weekend goes. 

Monday, November 14, 2011

My Son, the Wolf Man, Rages Against Gmail

I do not draw.  However, I had my light box out the other day for Anders to trace a map of South America for Spanish class, and thought I'd experiment with tracing a photo I'd taken of Lars in my car, sipping his favorite Starbucks beverage.  At first I thought I'd done a pretty good job, except that he looks like he's had his eyebrows waxed.  Lars looked at my tracing and said, "I look like I have a beard, Mom!"  So much for my sad attempt at shadowing.  If I added little points to his ears, he'd look like a wolf man with a Starbucks habit.


Okay, since I'm embarrassing Lars today, he requested a rant about how Google ruined his day today.  I'm going to copycat The Empress, who lets her son dictate blog posts about whatever's on his mind.  Take it away, Lars-of-Ours!

_______________________________________________________

Okay, so at the end of the day at school, I was on my Gmail account when suddenly a little pop-up box appeared in the middle of the screen.  It asked me when I was born, so I told it.  All of a sudden, my Inbox disappeared and in its place was a box saying that because I was not over 13 years old, in 3 days my account will be permanently deleted!  It said that if I wish to keep my Gmail account I would have to tell them my credit card number (I don't even own a credit card!) so they could fine me thirty cents.  [Mom is raising an incredulous eyebrow of suspicion right now.]  I am SO MAD at Gmail that I wanted to hack into their web site, but my friend stopped me just in time.  [Note from Mom: No way can Lars hack into Google's web site, or anyone else's.  Mom is having trouble letting Lars talk without interrupting...] 

Now, I have a Yahoo! account, but when I created it they asked me when I was born.  I was so desperate for an email account that I told it I was born in 1990.  I will never use Google again and I hope you don't either.  From, Lars the Obliterator.  --Wait, no!  Lars the Conqueror!  I'm the conqueror!  Goodbye for now, and DON'T USE GOOGLE!  Ever!

[More notes from Mom: the irony is, of course, that Lars is ranting about Google through Blogger, which is just Evil Google in Disguise].  Lars again, with eyebrows shooting up to the moon: "It IS?!!!"

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Buttercup Squash Soup and Herb Butter, Check!

Behold, the Buttercup Squash!  They are not a figment of the recipe's imagination (who are you to deny the imaginings of recipes?); they actually exist, and this is what they look like.  They look so fabulous with my granite countertops that I was tempted to use them as accessories, but alas, I snatched up the only Buttercup squashes that I could find.


Bernie versus The Squash
Because my knives are dull (note to self: get them sharpened ASAP!), and because I hate messy prep work, and because Bernie enjoys hacking viciously away at innocent squashes with a dull knife, I got to take pictures while Bernie peeled the raw squash and cut it into 1" cubes.  I am not allowed to go behind him with a ruler, actually measuring the size of his squash cubes.  Not if I want him to continue helping with the cooking, anyway.

So anyway, the leeks and the squash get chopped up and put in a big stock pot, and you pour a little white wine and a lot of chicken stock over the vegetables, bring to a boil, and then simmer for 25 minutes until the squash is fork-tender.  Here's what my soup looked when it was done cooking, cooling on the stove:

Buttercup Squash and Leek Soup, Ready to Puree

The "cool for at least 15 minutes" step turns out to be important, by the way.  Trying to pour boiling hot soup with big, splashing vegetable chunks into a blender or a food processer is a terrific way to burn yourself and make a giant mess. 


Something seems not-quite-right with my blender lately, by the way.  It has a Burning Motor smell and makes an unpleasant screeching noise when we turn it on.  Also my dogs get upset and whine at the back door when the blender is turned on, begging to escape the house, as if they sense impending doom or something.  I would love to have an immersion blender like this one from Williams Sonoma for this task, so I could puree the soup right in the cooking pot without messing with the blender or the food processer, but it seems pricey for something I might only use once a year.  They say you can use it for smoothies and all kinds of things, but I don't make that many smoothies, either.  Back to the soup!


So, ta-da!  The soup is done and is waiting patiently in the freezer for its Thanksgiving Debut.  Yes, it looks like baby food, but it tastes really good, I promise!  I'll just move it to the fridge to defrost the day before, then reheat it on the stove and add some chives and a pat of herbed butter to each bowl just before serving.  Far from being bland, this soup gets a bit of a kick from white pepper.  Mmm!

Herb Butter for Soup and Turkey
Speaking of the herbed butter, that's the other cooking task we crossed off the list today.  The butter gets creamed together with minced shallots sauteed in sherry and fresh chives.  I cut little star shapes out of the herb butter and froze those separately so one can go on each serving of soup, but the rest of this concoction gets smeared all over Big Bird, in between the skin and the breast meat.  This makes for a moist, flavorful bird that tastes way too good for there to be any leftovers.  Like the soup, the herb butter can be made up to two weeks ahead of time and frozen.  However, in years past, the herb butter has not DEFROSTED as quickly as the recipe promises it will, so I'll be moving it to the fridge to defrost a bit earlier this year to reduce Thanksgiving morning panic.  There's nothing like trying to smear frozen butter under the skin of a cold, raw turkey.

Tomorrow I've got some work to do in the morning, but I'm hoping to sneak in enough time to make my spiced pecans and at least make the crust for that Crimson Appleberry Pie that we're auditioning this year.  Yes, auditioning -- Thanksgiving is THEATRICAL!  If you'd like to try your hand at this soup recipe, you can find it here on finecooking.com.  I just feel better knowing that, no matter what catastrophes might be lurking between today and the 24th, at least my guests won't starve on Thanksgiving Day now that there's soup in the freezer!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

12 Days and Counting: Thanksgiving Menu Ready to Go!

Photo Courtesy of Fine Cooking
In less than two weeks, we'll be hosting Thanksgiving dinner for my parents, Bernie's parents, my sister-in-law, and teenaged nieces.  We haven't all been together for the holidays in a long time, and we're really looking forward to it.

So far, I've finalized my menu, ordered my 20-22 pound fresh, organic turkey from Dean & DeLuca for Tuesday pickup, and plotted out a timetable for what needs to be done when over the next two weeks in order for the meal to come together smoothly.  I ordered my spices from Penzey's yesterday and placed a wine order at wine.com that will be delivered this Thursday.  I went with four bottles of Oregon's Domaine Drouhain pinot noir for red, and two bottles of Adelsheim's Pinot Cris, also from Oregon, for the white.  Six bottles of wine for 5 adults -- do you think that will be enough?  ;-)  It's better to have too much wine than too little; any unopened bottles can be saved for another occasion.

Most of my Thanksgiving recipes come from a menu published in Fine Cooking magazine in October 1998.  What's great about this menu is that it uses all fresh ingredients, and although it's challenging (and impressive!), a lot can be done ahead of time, and the flavors of each dish complement the others so nicely.  I really can't imagine ever making anything else for Thanksgiving dinner, so the most I change is to experiment with a new green vegetable side dish or pie recipe each year.  In case you are in charge of cooking this year and haven't yet finalized your menu, might I suggest:

Spiced Pecans, recipe HERE
Spiced Pecans.  The spiced pecans recipe is used in the stuffing, but makes enough to set some out for pre-feast nibbling as well.  Lars loves these.  The spiced pecans can be made and frozen up to two weeks ahead of time, and that's one of the things I'm planning to do this weekend.  You can find that recipe at Fine Cooking here

Buttercup Squash & Leek Soup with Herb Butter, recipe HERE
Buttercup Squash & Leek Soup with Herb Butter.  Bernie really likes this soup, and sending him to five or six grocery stores to track down the right squash variety has become something of a Thanksgiving tradition in itself.  Buttercup squash is not the same thing as Butternut squash, although you can substitute Butternut if you can't find the Buttercup.  As for our family, we enjoy the Quest for Obscure Ingredients and the look of puzzlement on the faces of the produce boys who don't know their squash varieties as well as they ought to.  To me, the best thing about this soup is that it can be made and frozen up to two weeks ahead of time, and then you just dump it in a pot on the stove to reheat it on Turkey Day.  Easy peasy!  This soup is on the agenda for me this weekend as well, and you can find the recipe at Fine Cooking here.  What's more, I'll be making an herb butter this weekend that will be used to garnish the soup as well as to smear under the skin of my turkey to keep it all moist and delicious.  Mmmm...

Roasted Turkey with Apple Cider Thyme Gravy.  The recipe calls for a 12-14 pound fresh turkey, but I ordered a 20+ pound bird because of past experience.  This turkey is so good, there aren't enough leftovers if I don't get a bigger bird!  I'm allowing for an additional hour and a half of roasting time for my bigger bird.  By the way, if you've never cooked a fresh bird for Thanksgiving before, there's nothing to fear.  In fact, I think frozen birds are much harder.  I've heard so many horror stories about frozen turkeys not thawing in time, or not cooking as quickly as expected because they weren't completely thawed, resulting in sub-par Thanksgiving dinners served at 11 PM to grouchy, starving guests.  You don't have to worry about that with a fresh bird, and you can order one ahead of time from most butchers or specialty grocers.  The recipe for this delicious, knock-your-socks-off Thanksgiving turkey is right here

Wild Rice, Spiced Pecan & Apple Stuffing.  Mmmm...  This recipe is fabulous with the Apple Cider Thyme gravy, and it's really easy, too.  It uses some of the spiced pecans, and you prep most of the ingredients the night before so you're just folding in the wet ingredients on Turkey Day.  Michael Brisson, the chef who came up with these recipes, suggests sticking a fork into the middle of the stuffing to draw the heat into the bird and ensure the stuffing cooks completely.  I've done that every time I stuffed a turkey and have never had a problem.  The recipe also makes enough stuffing to fill a separate baking dish.  You can find that recipe here

Whipped Yukon Gold Potatoes with Horseradish
Whipped Yukon Gold Potatoes with Horseradish.  Yes, horseradish -- the zing of horseradish is the perfect counterpoint to the apple sweetness of the apple cider gravy and the apples in the stuffing.  Trust me.  You'll find this recipe at Fine Cooking here. 

Cranberry Citrus Compote, photo courtesy of Fine Cooking
Cranberry Citrus Compote.  This is another one of Michael Brisson's recipes from Fine Cooking.  Again, the recipe is fairly easy, the lemon and orange juice elevates these cranberries way above what some people (gasp!) dump out of a can, and this dish can be made up to a week ahead of time and refrigerated.  You just stir in the sliced scallions on Turkey Day and dump it into a serving bowl.  Try it!  You can find this recipe at Fine Cooking here

Green Beans with Pancetta, Mushrooms & Shallots
Now, Michael Brisson's original menu in the October '98 Fine Cooking included a warm greens salad and a fruit crisp for dessert.  We're pie people when it comes to Thanksgiving, so I've never bothered to try out the fruit crisp.  I made the warm greens salad with homemade plum vinaigrette dressing the first year, and it didn't go over well enough for our family to justify all the fuss.  A salad that gets sauteed immediately before serving doesn't make for good leftovers, either.  My mother always made that green bean casserole from the Campbell's soup recipe for Thanksgiving, and last year I discovered this fancy pants gourmet version that scratches the green bean itch but fits in better with the rest of my Thanksgiving Day Feast.  This year I'll be making my Green Beans with Crispy Pancetta, Mushrooms & Shallots again using Susie Middleton's recipe from the November 2010 issue of Fine Cooking, recipe here.  My mother will think the green beans are not cooked enough (I'm not a fan of mushy vegetables), but she can pop hers in the microwave.  Love you, Mom!  :-)

For dessert, I'll be making the Cinnamon-Molasses Pumpkin Pie with Pecan Crust that I've served every year since the recipe was published in Bon Appetit in 1999.  The original recipe calls for a bourbon whipped cream that I tried once and loathed, so I skip that and serve my pie with vanilla ice cream instead.  The pecan crust and molasses elevate this pumpkin pie so far beyond anything I could buy in a store.  Every year I work myself up about the pie crust and consider buying an ordinary pastry crust from the grocery store, but it's really not all that hard to make pie crust from scratch and the results are so worth it.  I find that a glass of wine for the pastry chef goes a long way towards calming the pie jitters!  I couldn't find my pie recipe online at the Bon Appetit web site, but I did locate the exact same recipe (with no credit given to the source!) here in the archives of a Colorado newspaper.  Since Bon Appetit published the recipe in 1999 and the Greeley and Weld County, Colorado Tribune published it in 2007, I'm guessing some unscrupulous Colorado baker tried to pass it off as his or her own creation.  Tsk, tsk, tsk...  I always bake two pumpkin pies: one for me, and one for everyone else to share.  And no, I'm not kidding.  Momma eats pumpkin pie for breakfast every year on Black Friday.

Since I'll have eleven mouths to feed this Thanksgiving, and since I'm only willing to share one of my pumpkin pies, I'm going to be testing out a new-to-me fruit pie recipe this year.  With apples playing a prominent role in the main courses, an apple pie was the obvious choice, but I have never like the super sweet versions.  I found a recipe for Crimson Appleberry Pie in Carole Walter's Great Pies & Tarts cookbook, available here from Amazon.  I figure the cranberry/apple combo works great for juice, so why not for pie?  The cranberries should add just enough bite to the apple pie to keep it from being too cloyingly, annoyingly sweet.  What's more, I found instructions on the Baking Banter blog at King Arthur Flour for making any kind of fruit pie ahead of time and freezing it just prior to baking.  I would be skeptical if this was coming from just any source, but the folks at King Arthur Flour are fanatical when it comes to baking, so I'm going to give this a try.  I'm going to be making and freezing my Crimson Appleberry Pie this weekend, defrosting it the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and then popping it in the oven to bake the day before the Big Feast.  I'll let you know how it turns out.

Meanwhile, it's almost lunch time on Saturday and I need to get out from behind the computer if I'm really going to get anything done today.  I need to do my non-perishable grocery shopping for Thanksgiving and make Spiced Pecans, Buttercup Squash Soup, Herb Butter, and Appleberry Pie.  I also have my parents coming over for dinner tonight for a belated birthday dinner (Bernie's birthday fell on Wednesday this year) and I'll be baking ziti and serving cupcakes for dinner.  Is it too optimistic to think the laundry might get washed as well?

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Once Upon a Dining Room: A New Ceiling Reinvigorates an Ever-Changing Space


Finally, my dining room ceiling is finished!  In person, it looks like a midnight sky; pictures (my pictures, anyway) don't do it justice at all.  The ornamental scrollwork design around the chandelier is barely visible in this picture.  It's subtle in real life, but you can see it much better.  It's kind of like a shadow or an echo of the scroll work on the chandelier, and it's embellished with decorative upholstery nails.  The crown molding has a metallic foil finish selected to complement the gold drapery hardware and accents on the light fixtures.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Are They Done Yet? The First Crackled Molasses Sugar Cookies of the Season!


Rolling the cookies in granulated sugar
The leaves have turned colors and started to fall, the temperatures have been dropping, and we just turned the clocks back last night.  When I did my grocery shopping yesterday, instead of picking up a container of gross pastel bakery cookies slathered with frosting for the lunch boxes, I loaded up my cart with dark brown sugar, molasses, vegetable shortening, and some eggs.  Everything else we needed to make Crackled Molasses Sugar Cookies was already in our pantry.

Lars and Anders had a great day today, finishing up school work, piano, trombone and recorder practice, and choir rehearsal with plenty of time to spare.  They deserved something special, so I wrapped them up in aprons and helped Anders with the chef's hat he got way back in preschool.

These cookies need to be formed into 1 1/2" balls and then rolled in granulated sugar before baking.  I make the balls myself because if they are all different wonky sizes they won't all bake in the same amount of time, but rolling the cookie balls in the sugar is the boys' job. 

They were too cute, camped out in front of the oven the whole time the cookies were baking, squealing "They're crackling! They're crackling!"  This tells me that I do not do nearly enough baking.

Fresh From the Oven



So at least for this week, Lars and Anders will have homemade cookies in their lunch boxes and waiting for them after school. The big challenge will be overcoming the urge to snack on the cookies all day long while they're at school. I mean, there IS iron in the molasses, but these cookies aren't really appropriate as a meal replacement. Or so they tell me.

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