Thursday, December 30, 2010

Pre-Fab Gingerbread Can Be Fabulous!

This Christmas wouldn't be complete without decorating some gingerbread. You can click here to see last year's faux gingerbread house on Foodspiration. Because this year we have a new baby, instead of baking a gingerbread house, we went the pre-fab route. This turned out to be surprisingly easy and rewarding even though I didn't get to bake the gingerbread myself!

This 8 dollar kit from Trader Joe's reminded me of a Tahoe-style cabin with front and back pieces and two roof walls. Thank goodness, I had my crafty cousin, Sara, to help me assemble and decorate this house. She's a great baker and cook- bringing homemade caramels and cookies to Christmas this year!

The kit included powdered sugar and a few candies for decoration. However, we dug into my stash of sprinkles, candy canes and gumdrops to really make this house come to life. We also piped the royal icing. We decided to build the house first and decorate second. This design of the structure was really robust and it felt pretty sturdy as we were "gluing" on candy with royal icing.

And voila! A pre-fab gingerbread house that we think is pretty darn fabulous.

and here's the back... It made a great centerpiece on the dining room table!

We hope you had a Merry Christmas and we wish you a Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Baking: German Stollen Recipe

I first blogged about this family tradition a couple of years ago when we were visiting Minnesota for the holidays, however, this year I baked it for the first time on my own. It's a special bread in my memory in that the family would always have this bread on Christmas morning while we were opening presents.

The Stollen turned out fairly true to my memory . . . the crumb on the drier side (my preference) with bursts of flavor in the raisins, currants, and candied fruits. The glaze gives this yeast-leavened bread a touch of sweetness that is a great counterpart to a cup of black coffee.

My Christmas present to you is passing on the recipe to you and yours to share . . . Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chocolate Egg Nog in Jelly Jar Glasses

I'm not sure why, but there's something about drinking egg nog from jelly jar glasses that just feels like Christmastime.

and it's Trader Joe's chocolate egg nog which is addictingly good.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Will It Be A No-Bake Christmas?

Well, I hope not but a lot has changed since last December- most importantly- we've had a baby! And he's a pretty big deal so I haven't had the free time to bake as much as I want. Most recently, my last baking endeavor was a DISASTER. Don't worry, that post celebrating failure is coming soon. In the meantime, I'd thought I'd share a no-bake recipe link from last year. Click on this No-Bake Peppermint Chocolate Cookie link to see how you can make these gorgeous cookies without even turning on the stove. Note: I saw these cookies in Williams-Sonoma this year- don't buy them because they are so easy to make.

And if all goes well on Thursday, my mom will watch Lil P so I can do a simple baking project. Let's hope I get my baking mojo back.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Polenta Section of the Menu

It's the most wonderful time of the year and the busiest. Needless to say with a three month old, I'm not doing the baking extravanza that I normally do. And in a fun twist of events, we actually took a mini-vacation to the coast (just a drive for us)! It's actually a great time of year to do this because it's the off-season and there are great mid-week deals. So, instead of being up to my ears in powdered sugar, we found ourselves in Graton at Willow Wood Restaurant.

As a recommendation from one of the folks at Lynmar Estates, makers of delicious pinor noir in Sebastopol that we sampled earlier in the day, this restaurant did not let us down. With an entire section of the menu dedicated to polenta, how could I not order it? My mom's family is Italian-American and so polenta is a staple. This plate, the "market plate" combined several of my favorites things into one eclectic and tasty dish. It's definitely one of those plates I wouldn't have thought to create but now that I've had it, it seems like something I could easily make at home.

Let's break it down: starting at the lower left you will spy some lovely sauteed spinach with fried coppa and a soft boiled egg. When I was pregnant, soft boiled eggs fell into the "avoid" category so this was a welcome back delicacy that I was happy to once again enjoy. Moving clockwise, you'll see one of the three slices of cambozola toast- where gorgonzola meets a triple cream cheese. Yum! Then of course, the creamy polenta with a roasted tomato. Yum. yum. yum. It was really quite good. Almost worthy of a Julie Andrews-esque song: (to the tune of My Favorite Things) "green sauteed spinach and crispy fried coppa, creamy polenta and roasted tomato, surrounded by toasts topped with stinky, soft cheese- these are a few of my favorite things..."

More foodspiration to come, I promise...also, we heard that the crab season in Bodega Bay is fabulous this year...hmm, perhaps crab on Christmas Eve at our house!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thanksgiving Recap: Wedge Salads, Sweet Potatoes with Meringue, and BGE Turkey

We hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving! We hosted again this year but had a lot of help from our guests who brought great food. I love setting a formal table and using our wedding china.

This year, I also polished up a set of "silverware" that belonged to my Nonnie and was given to me by my aunt. I only have enough for eight settings- which is exactly the number of people that we had. I always treasure using things that have been in our family for years on these holiday occasions.

We tried a few new things this year including this wedge salad. Inspired by the book, Good Stuff, by Spike from Top Chef, this wedge salad included cucumbers, tomatoes, kalamata olives, sesame seeds and a champagne vinagrette dressing. I am not usually a fan of the traditional wedge salad, but this cookbook has delicious recipes for new interpretations of this classic salad as well as burgers and shakes. I can't wait to make more recipes from this book (we already tried the pumpkin milkshake- just haven't posted yet). The salad was refreshing and looked lovely on our plates. I love a plated salad! Thanks, mom, for making it!

My aunt brought these sweet potatoes but instead of marshmallows, we whipped up some fresh meringue and piped it on top. A few minutes in the broiler and...

The meringue was beautifully browned. It was a light and sweet way to top the sweet potatoes - not to mention that it looked lovely.

And finally, the most important part...the turkey! Justin used the Big Green Egg (BGE) and the turkey turned out great! Wish I had some photos but we were too busy taking care of our little guy and pulling the dinner together. You'll have to check out our past posts for more in depth details.

Did you try any new recipes this year? We'd love to hear about them.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Eggs Benedict WIN & FAIL

One great thing about Saturday mornings with a house guest are the excuse to go all out on breakfast. With English muffins, eggs, bacon, and butter on-hand and a new kitchen tool (egg poaching cups) I set out to make Eggs Benedict, something I've made maybe once before. At the heart of this dish is Hollandaise Sauce . . . a relatively simple recipe, however, it can be a little tricky because the emulsified sauce can be difficult to form and even if you get it right -- can easily break.

As a first step you'll likely want to refine one of your ingredients. Butter is thought of as fat, which it largely is, but it still a mixture of milk components, roughly: 80% fat, 18% water, and 2% milk solids (proteins, lactose, salts). When you lightly heat butter in a sauce pan (above, TOP) you cause the water to boil away and the solids to coagulate . . . when you skim these solids away you'll have "clarified butter", a purer butter oil (above, BOTTOM). The product known as ghee is similar, but is typically heated longer which imparts a brown nutty flavor and works well with Indian cooking.

For heating the sauce I improvised this double-boiler set up. You start by whisking three egg yolks and some water together. Egg yolks contain fat (12%), water (45-50%), protein (16%), and surface-active components of lecithin and cholesterol. It is primarily the role of the lecithin to help stabilize the oil-in-water emulsion by aligning its oil-loving portions toward the fat and the its water-loving parts toward the water.

The clarified butter is then added slowly in a small stream, making periodic pauses to incorporate the butter before adding more. Managing the temperature of the sauce is very important, you must keep it warm enough to keep the fat liquid and so it incorporates into the emulsion, but not so hot that the sauce breaks (more on this later). Lemon juice, white pepper, and salt added for flavor.

To poach the eggs I used silicone cups made just for this purpose. The eggs neatly bobbed along in their boats simplifying the poaching operation somewhat, since the water didn't need to be swirled just right . . . however, they did take-on a slightly manufactured appearance. While still delicious with a runny center, aesthetically they were a little too uniform for my taste. At the moment I was ready to proudly serve this ephemeral goodness I realized our house guest had disappeared to the shower.

What I didn't do well was keep the Hollandaise sauce in that band of temperatures between not-too-warm and not-to-cold . . . I let it cool too much and then when our hungry guest reappeared I reheated it too fast and too hot, which caused the proteins to curdle and the emulsion to break. Next time I'll place the bowl in a surrounding tub of warm water to maintain temperature.

Eggs Benedict FAIL: overheated, broken sauce. Not very pretty.

Eggs Benedict WIN: a softly poached egg on an English muffin with bacon, creamy Hollandaise sauce and a bit of basil and cherry tomatoes as a garnish.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving Planning and Favorite Recipes!

Can you believe it's the week of Thanksgiving? Well, we are hosting this year and wanted to share some of our favorite recipes with you in case you need some ideas! Here's what we will be making and the links to past posts:

- Turkey on the Big Green Egg. This slow cooked turkey is not only delicious but frees up the oven for other things.

- Grandma S's Cranberry Orange relish. This no cook recipe is bright and fresh. It takes no time at all! But if you want a cooked cranberry, try thisL

- Cranberry Ginger Relish. Five simple ingredients (cranberries, sugar, water, red wine vinegar, and ginger) and the stove make lovely cooked cranberry accompaniment.

- The Best Mashed Potatoes. Ever. The secret ingredient is psss- cream cheese! We might be steaming our potatoes this year after watching it done on American's Test Kitchen. They had some good scientific reasons for doing so and we were intrigued. More to come. Also this post had some beautiful butternut squash and pomegranate recipe.

We are also making the pies and rolls. Hmm, I'm thinking pumpkin and a cinnamon apple crumble pie.

Finally a few bonus links:

- How to safely thaw your turkey. A little food science here for safe turkey handling.

- A non-alcoholic sweet tart cranberry spritzer for the table. This is light and refreshing so you can save room for more turkey and stuffing.

- Edible Bacon Bowls. This plated salad used strips of bacon to make the "bowl" for a delicious and interesting salad presentation.

- Past Pie Posts. How to beautify your crust and other posts on pies that we've made.

Hope you are foodspired for Thanksgiving and let us know if you try any of these recipes!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Foodstorm: Salted Caramel Sauce

There's a new product shelf at Trader Joe's and I had to buy this because I love salty sweet. Any ideas on how to use this other than topping some ice cream?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Weeknight Pizza Bake!

Thank you, Trader Joe's, for making a bag of fresh pizza dough that we can easily top and bake on a weeknight. We make this yummy pizza with NO sauce and it's great. Our favorite toppings:

- olive oil (brush this on the whole pizza dough)
- fresh basil
- sliced cherry tomatoes ( canned works too)
- sliced olives
- goat cheese
- fresh mozzarella
- prosciutto

And there you have night doesn't have to be Friday.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Foodstorm: What Should We Do with Pumpkin Cream Cheese?

I couldn't resist buying this new and seasonal item, pumpkin cream cheese spread. Aside from putting it on a bagel, what else should I do with it? Any ideas? Let's have a food brainstorm!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Before you start holiday baking...check the expiration date!

It's almost time for holidays pies, cookies and other baked goods! And before you start baking, you should do a pantry check of the expiration dates on the following things:

1. Baking soda and baking powder- these chemical leaveners can react with moisture in the air slowly over time and lose their power. You definitely don't want your cake to fail because the leavening was too old!

2. Yeast. Even the dry packages of yeast have a shelf life and you should take a peek before you use them!

3. Spices. When was the last time you checked your spices? While they may have a very long shelf life, you'll get the best flavor from spices that are fresh. I just discovered that our pumpkin pie spice was over two years old. Oops.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Food Toys!

Ah, we were shopping out in Half Moon Bay this weekend in search of foodspiration. And did we find it- a new cookbook, a poached egg thingy, asparagus servers and a tasty meringue treat later...we were inspired! In a hobby store, we saw a huge assortment of wooden play toys. And that that we have a little one, I'm hoping we'll get to play with our food a bit more. This reminded me of two past posts that are worth another visit:

1. A Tale of Two Play Kitchens: two friends shared the play kitchens that they made or bought for their kids. This kitchen (in photo above) was remade by my friend and her husband. The before and after is quite impressive and reminded me that reusing is a great thing! Check out their creative blog at

2. Handmade Felt Play Food: I love this Bug Bites Play Food that you can buy on Etsy. So sweet and creative. I requested this custom order for lemon and raspberry tarts for a play tea set. Take a look! She has great holiday food items as well.

Hmm, the holidays are around the corner and food toys are wonderful and creative gifts to give!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Farewell Summer: Strawberry Honey Pies

With a few rainy and cool days, we've been catapulted into fall. And so it's finally time to bid farewell to summer and summertime flavors like watermelon, strawberry and sweet corn. I saw this recipe for strawberry honey mini pies on Giada's television show and had to try it before the last summer strawberry was gone.

The recipe uses a mini muffin pan as a pie pan. I also have a small cake pan that I used as well thinking that I would have enough leftover crust. Because I have limited time as a new mom, I cheated and used Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust. It's a great product that you roll out and use as you like.

I began by cutting the berries into small pieces and adding honey and orange zest. Don't be generous with the orange zest as I was because it can be a tad bitter and overwhelm the flavor of the berries. If you prefer sweeter pies, I'd add a bit of sugar to this. It was a bit tart to me.

Using round cookie cutters, i cut out circles for tops and bottoms from the pie dough.

After spraying the pan with Pam, I tucked the bottom into the mini muffin pans...and you can see it took a bit of practice as some look better than others!

I, then, filled the cups with the berry mixture.

Using a small cookie cutter, I cut hearts into the top crust circles. I places the top crust and used a fork to seal the edges. It wasn't pretty so i trimmed the edges with a knife. I brushed the crust with a beaten egg to give it color while baking. I also sprinkled lemon rosebud sugar on top. These aren't too sweet so I highly recommend the sugar on top.

With the leftover crust and berries, I made a small pie in my small cake pan as well.

Into the oven they went...and be careful not to overbake as the juices from the filling will bubbles and overflow too much. I confess that I slightly overbaked the minis and too much juice came out.

The small pie was perfect though- flavorful, juicy and moist.

After cooling slightly, the pies popped right out! And they were lovely! I do think they tasted better the next day because the orange, strawberry and honey melded overnight. Initially, the orange flavor was overpowering. I'd love to try some other fruit variations in the future. The small two bite size could be perfect for other flavors as well!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fall Favorites: Butternut Squash- Apple Soup and Pumpkin Blondies

We are starting to see signs of fall out here in California. It's my favorite time of year and I love to cook when it is cold and blustery. Not to mention, I love the flavors of fall- pumpkin, butternut squash, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove...I felt pretty good this week when I went to my own blog to source two of my favorite fall recipes. And I learned from previous mistakes as noted and both of these recipes were a huge success! Check out these past posts:

1. Butternut squash and apple soup. First, please make this soup. It turned out sooo fabulous this week. This post has the entire recipe and step by step photos. I used chicken broth and dried rosemary and thinned it enough so that it was velvety smooth but not too thick. I can't gush enough about how yummy it was even without the sour cream and thyme. This is the little black dress of soup- add the sour cream drizzle and it's fancy enough for a dinner party but leave it plain and it's great for a weeknight.

2. Pumpkin White Chocolate Blondies. Now I don't love white chocolate and some may say that white chocolate isn't really chocolate but it works in this recipe. After making this several times last year, I didn't not make the same mistakes as last year. I used only the called for 1 CUP of pumpkin nit the whole can. And I baked for 38 minutes which gave moist and cakey bars. So delicious that I forgot to save them for a new photo!

Happy Fall!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Petite Hot Chocolate

Now that I am home on maternity leave, I was looking for a morning ritual drink to jumpstart the each day of new motherhood. I'm not a coffee drinker and I like tea but I tend to drink that in the afternoon. And I found a tin of sipping chocolate from Trader Joe's back in our pantry to make hot chocolate with milk. With a bit of whipping cream, I had my morning drink.

But why the petite? I was making a large mug like this but I found that it was just too much. So I brought out some small espresso cups from my great aunt- the perfect size!

What are your morning food or drink rituals?