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Orange Pecan French Toast

February 17, 2012

This recipe would have worked really well as a pre-valentine’s post last weekend. It’s a perfect “make breakfast for your special someone” sort of recipe. Like valentine’s day, it’s indulgently sweet: something yummy and exciting but that you couldn’t deal with every day.

If like me, you didn’t quite get it together on the holiest of Hallmark Holiday, this french toast is a wonderful surprise, or apology, or treat to share with someone you love on any old day. (Or any old weekend day, since it takes a while to bake.)

Not that the recipe should be limited to romantic rendezvous. You can scale it up for as many people as you like, and baking it ensures that it’s all ready at the same time. Most of the assembly is done the night before, so the morning work is pretty idiot proof… unless you leave the plastic wrap on the pan when you put it in the oven. (Luckily, it was fine this time around, but the saran-toast incident cemented the  “coffee before cooking breakfast” rule.)

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Hobbit Day 2012

February 12, 2012

After last year’s “Eat Like a Hobbit Day,” I wanted to make it an annual tradition. This year’s circumstances were a bit different. With work and other commitments, we missed Tolkien’s birthday by a long shot. A lot of the inspiration comes from British country food, and we can’t get certain ingredients, like Cumberland sausages or ground almonds. However, this Hobbit Day benefited from happening 3 blocks from one of the best produce markets in the world, and more importantly, having a community of people to share the day with.

Like last year, we watched Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. We opted for the non-extended versions, much to the chagrin of some of purist friends, which meant only a little over 9 hours of movie-watching.

The debate is ongoing about how to integrate the new Hobbit films along with extended versions into this annual tradition, just to give you an idea of the level of nerd-discussion that goes on in my house.

For me, it’s much more about the food anyway, which I now present. I had a few repeats from last year, as well as a chance to try some brand-new recipes. I included links to some of those recipes below.

Photo by Kat Wepler

Breakfast: Lavender Lemon Muffins with Sliced Strawberries

I was a little worried these muffins would taste like potpourri, but the lavender flavor subtly complimented the lemon. They were deliciously light.

Second Breakfast: Toad in the Hole with Red Onion Gravy, Grilled Mushrooms and Tomatoes

A repeat of last year, though I made a single-serving version in muffin-tins. This is total comfort food, especially good with a little coarse-grain mustard.

Elevenses: Seed Cake with Honey and Blue Cheese Shortbread

I made the shortcake with Gorgonzola and it turned out a bit like an upscale cheez-it. I’ll hopefully post this recipe later on, as it was one of the most requested recipes of the day. Gorgonzola and minces pecans make a great combo, but it could work with other cheeses as well.

Luncheon: Roast chicken or mushroom sandwiches. Homemade pickles: garlic dill  and sweet cauliflower.

Thanks to the leftovers, I had this for lunch all week. Simple and satisfying.

Tea: Berries and Cream, Brownies

Ok, so the “slutty brownies” lovingly made by a friend are found no-where in the Tolkien canon. This, however, is the beauty of Hobbit Day. All you need to justify a delicious morsel is to say “Hobbits would have liked this.” I’m not sure about the exact recipe, but it looks a lot like this with the addition of caramel sauce.

Dinner: Coney Stew and Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie

Many thanks to the friend who made what I call “Gardener’s Pie,” so I could focus on the coneys.

This was my first time cooking rabbit, and I went with a riff on Rabbit Etouffee. With the combination of tomatoes and red wine, it tasted a lot like my family’s chicken cacciatore, not nearly as strange as you might think eating bunny could be. Now that I have my toes in the water, I want to try a preparation that lets the rabbit flavor dominate more. Still, this was a great introduction.

Supper: Apple Tart and Mixed Greens with Lemon Vinaigrette

We needed something a little sweet and not too heavy to finish off the evening. I threw this tart together with a mixed butter/shortening crust, sliced pink lady apples and a glaze of apricot preserves.

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

January 3, 2012

This is one of those times when I wish I could send smells over the internet. The aroma of roasting tomatillos, peppers and garlic is one of the main reasons I love making this instead of just buying it in a jar.

I also love the flexibility of it. This is really more of a technique than a recipe, and I vary the amounts a bit each time depending on how spicy I want the sauce and what I’m using it for.

We used this as a topping for gorditas, but it also makes a great sauce for enchiladas, a marinade for chicken, or an accompaniment to chips or nachos.

Fun fact: tomatillo plants are self-incompatible, so they need another plant for proper pollination to bear fruit. It’s a little like a love story… if you anthropomorphize your food.  In any case, tomatillos are tangy, a little sweet, and sticky when disrobed.

I highly recommend using foil and curling it up around the edges. Tomatillos tend to burst open and leak juice, and you want to collect every last drop for the salsa.

Be careful with the hot serranos. You can play with whether or not to remove the seeds or how much of the pepper to actually use, especially if making salsa for spice-noobs.

You can remove the charred bits from the tomatillos if you like. I tend to leave them in for the extra roasted flavor.

Sunday dinner at my house: green salsa on top of poblano-cheese stuffed gorditas. You need a glass of milk for this one.

Here’s another application from last summer: chicken thighs marinated and braised in the salsa to make delicious tacos. I used extra lime juice and less serrano in this one.

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

Makes about 3 cups

1.5 lbs fresh tomatillos, peeled and rinsed
4 cloves garlic, in the skin
1-2 serrano chiles
1/2 medium yellow onion, skin on
1 Tablespoon lime juice
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
salt to taste

1. Line a broiler pan or baking sheet with foil, lay out tomatillos, garlic, onion and serranos. Place under the broiler until all are soft and begin to char, about 10 minutes on the first side and 5 minutes on the second side. (Check on it frequently to make sure nothing gets over-charred.)
2. Remove ingredients and set aside until cool enough to handle. Peel the onion, garlic and chiles. Remove seeds and inner veins from the chiles.
3. Cut the onion into chunks. Run all ingredients through a food processor, in batches if necessary. Texture should be fairly smooth, but some small chunks are fine.
4. Stir in lime juice, cilantro and salt. Serve immediately or leave in the fridge overnight to let the flavors really blend.


Hoppin’ John

December 29, 2011

This traditional New Year’s treat is something I enjoy making all year long. Like so many other rice and bean dishes (Gallo Pinto, for example), Hoppin’ John is super-satisfying without being heavy.

There are a lot of theories about the name. My personal favorite is that eager eaters will come “hopping” when you cook it. The less charming but perhaps more plausible etymology is that it’s a bastardization of the creole word for black-eyed peas, “pois pigeons.

In the American South, it’s eaten on New Year’s Day to bring luck and prosperity, and it’s been around a good long time. The recipe in The Carolina Housewife from 1847 is as follows:

As you can see, there isn’t much to it. Given that it’s a winter delicacy, you probably couldn’t count on a lot of fresh vegetables at the time. Convinced that I was missing something, I checked the Lee Bros’ Southern Cookbook; they add some onion, tomatoes and red pepper flakes, but it’s similarly simple.

We’re spoiled with an abundance of fresh produce, so my version of Hoppin’ John has developed into a more colorful dish. I can’t pretend that it’s authentic, but it’s definitely delicious, and worth the extra chopping.

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Double Chocolate Cookies

December 22, 2011

I first had these cookies at my husband’s family Thanksgiving. They’re a welcoming bunch, who don’t seem to notice the interloper eating their food and hunting for new recipes among the offerings. I’m not sure if I’ll get in trouble for posting a family secret here, but my mother-in-law said she found a similar recipe on the Ghirardelli website, so I’m assuming it’s public enough.

It also falls into one of my favorite categories of good old American cookery: recipes on the side of packaging. I love the Toll House’s chocolate chip cookies and Libby’s Pumpkin Pie. My split pea soup started from a bag of dried peas, and I’ve been known to get excited over Dole’s Pineapple Upside Down Cake.

The most famous example of the product-driven recipe is probably my family’s beloved 4-can green bean casserole. (Originally a 3-can affair invented by Campbell’s in the ’50s.) These recipes aren’t usually the most creative, but they are pretty darn reliable. They are comfort foods for the cook as well as the eater.

On the other hand, this Double-Chocolate Cookie is a little unusual for a “corporate” recipe. The dough itself is very wet; so wet that you might doubt you are making cookie at all. It also has a subtle but powerful combination of bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate and is decadent without being overly rich. Ghirardelli is from the San Francisco after all; it wouldn’t deign to have a prosaic cookie on its packaging.

As usual, this recipe begins with a picture of butter. This butter just happens to be mixed with chocolate.

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Grandma’s Spritz Cookies

December 13, 2011

These cookies make Christmas for me. When I was growing up, they marked the arrival of the season, a family tradition which required a lot of enthusiasm and massive amounts of butter. We must have been doubling or tripling the recipe, because I remember an enormous white tupperware container full to the brim. We then chipped away at the cookies until Christmas eve, when Santa would get the last few.

It requires a slightly obscure piece of equipment: a cookie press. Growing up, I used my grandma’s old metal contraption, which actually works a lot better than the plastic one I just bought. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but they don’t make cookie presses like they used to. The trigger which squirts out just the right amount of dough for one cookie is a nice idea, but in the end I’d like to have more control.

On the other hand, I’m glad I have modern technology to finally digitize this recipe. This is the state it was in when I asked my mom to email it. I have no idea where Grandma got the recipe originally. I would assume she picked it up when living in Germany, since a little internet research reveals their full name to be “Spritzgebäck.”

There isn’t anything too remarkable about the dough, except perhaps 3 egg yolks. (This is not an artery-friendly dessert.) One caveat: I made the dough ahead of time, and it got a little dried out, which made the edges of my cookies crack. So much for preparedness.

Decorating cookies is a lot more fun as a group activity, so I brought the dough and my new kitchen toy upstairs to our friends’ gingerbread house party. (You might know one of them as Rachel’s Digestif.)

The partygoers made quick work of adding sprinkles. We also tried M&Ms which worked very nicely. Sadly, the valiant gummi bear did not survive the oven, and took his cookie down with him.

Everyone was really into the pumpkin-shaped cookies, in defiance of the numerous christmas-themed shapes.

This one is having an identity crisis.

I believe the cookie in the bottom right bore the ill-fated gummi bear. Rest his soul.

Spritz Cookies

Recipe from Dorothy Zahner
Makes about 60 small cookies

1 cup butter, softened (I used unsalted)
1 cup white sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder

1. Preheat oven to 400˚F
2. Cream together butter and sugar.
3. Add egg yolks and vanilla.
4. Combine flour and baking powder in a medium bowl. Mix dry ingredients into the dough a little at a time.
5. Transfer dough to a cookie press and squeeze onto a baking sheet, a couple of inches apart.
6. Add sprinkles or M&Ms to decorate
7. Bake for 10-12 minutes until lightly golden. Check them often as these cookies burn easily.

Mexican Wedding Cakes or Whatever You Call Them

December 6, 2011

Well, it’s the Christmas season, which means it’s time to break out this old chestnut. You’re welcome in advance.


This post is the first of a series of holiday cookies I’m baking in the lead up to the holidays. I’ve got a party to throw, friends to gift and a lot of butter to use up.

I always associate these little powder-balls with Christmas, although I suppose you could make them any time of year.They fill in the gaps on the tray of cookies, diligently manning their posts without making too much of a stir. That is, until you bite into one and get a sweater-full of powdered sugar.

I’ve always known them as “Mexican Wedding Cakes,” which is probably an offensive term. Apparently they’re also called Russian Tea Cakes or Butterballs. Given the simplicity of the recipe, it’s no wonder they go by so many aliases.

It’s kind of a proto-cookie: butter, sugar, vanilla, flour. The pecans are the most unusual ingredient, and they have to be toasted, which means very low heat and constant stirring until you start to smell them cooking (around 8 minutes for these.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve burned nuts by turning away for a second.

The dough was really dense, like “shaking the mixer so much it moved across the counter” dense.

Surprisingly, the result is a really delicate cookie. Crumbly and sweet and nutty and a total mess on your kitchen floor.

Mexican Wedding Cakes

From Bon Appetit via Epicurious
Makes around 4 dozen

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar, divided
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup pecans, toasted, coarsely ground
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until light and fluffy.
2. Add 1/2 cup powdered sugar and vanilla; beat until well blended.
3. Beat in flour, then pecans.
4. Divide dough in half; form each half into ball. Wrap separately in plastic; chill until cold, about 30 minutes.
5. Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk remaining 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar and cinnamon in pie dish to blend. Set cinnamon sugar aside.
6. Working with half of chilled dough, roll dough by 2 teaspoonfuls between palms into balls.
7. Arrange balls on heavy large baking sheet, spacing 1/2 inch apart.
8. Bake cookies until golden brown on bottom and just pale golden on top, about 18 minutes.
9. Cool cookies 5 minutes on baking sheet. Gently toss warm cookies in cinnamon sugar to coat completely.
10. Sift remaining cinnamon sugar over cookies and serve.

(Cookies can be prepared 2 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature; reserve remaining cinnamon sugar ans sprinkle on just before serving.)

I’m going to make an attempt at freezing them. I’ll post back if it’s a crumbly disaster.