Sunday, December 28, 2008

Good Taste: Christmas Feasting

I never appreciated how much good holiday food I've eaten in my life until I had to make it myself.  Of course, Thanksgiving means that the turkey and all the fixin's make it to the [beautifully decorated] table.  Christmas means another huge feast, not to mention, special breakfast, cookies, neighbor treats, gingerbread for the gingerbread houses, and oranges and nuts finding their way to the bottom of our stockings.  Somehow, all these years, the tasty food has always made it to the table, and the only considerations I made were how I could fit both the mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes on that little space still available on my plate.

 This being my first Christmas as the mom, it was enlightening to create the holiday food traditions.  In some ways, it was fun to bring old classic dishes from my home and new recipes that call for such a festive occasion.  In other ways, I missed sitting in my childhood kitchen, doing something small like peeling potatoes or making the salad while chatting with my mom, who was probably making five dishes simultaneously, pots on all burners, gently simmering away.  But, after all, I felt a kinship with my mom and her mom and all the mothers who came before, because our tradition of cooking holiday meals transforms any old December 25th into Christmas Day, the day of the Savior's birth!  What a good reason to celebrate!

This was our Christmas Eve feast:

Honey-Orange Ham
This recipe came from an old Martha Stewart Christmas issues--maybe 2004?  Anyway, it actually features the family of an old mission buddy of my husband's--Matt H., if you are our there, thank your mom for her great ham recipe!  Your Christmas in Midway was picture perfect!
1 whole smoked ham (14 to 18 pounds), bone in and rind on
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 large onion, cut into 6 wedges
1 large orange, cut into 6 wedges
4 sprigs rosemary
1/2 cup cider vinegar
3 1/2 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Rinse ham with cool water; dry with paper towels.  Let stand, uncovered, at room temperature 1 hour.  Meanwhile, whisk together honey, orange juice, balsamic vinegar, and mustard; set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 300 degrees, with rack in lower third.  FIt a roasting pan with a rack and place ham, with the thicker rind on top, on rack.  Scatter onion and orange wedges and rosemary around ham on rack.  Transfer to oven and cook 1 hour.  
3. Remove pan from oven and let ham cool slightly.  Increase oven temperature to 350 degrees.  Trim fat all over the ham to a layer of about 1/4 inch (it does not need to be perfectly even; the bottom will have less fat and more skin).  Turn ham, bottom side down.  Score fat on top of ham in a diamond pattern, each 1 to 2 inches, cutting about 1/4 to 1/2 inch through the fat and into the meat.  Baste with honey mixture.  Add enough water to roasting pan to fill the bottom by about 1/4 inch.
4. Return ham to oven, and cook 1 hour more, basting often with remaining marinade (do not baste with pan juices).  If necessary, add water to pan to keep juices from burning.  Remove from oven; transfer ham to a serving platter; discard orange, onion, and rosemary.  Let stand 30 minutes before carving ham.
5. Meanwhile, make gravy: Strain liquid from roasting pan into a liquid measuring cup or bowl, and skim off fat from surface with a large spoon.  Place roasting pan over medium-high heat.  Add cider vinegar, and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Return defatted juices to pan along with 2 cups stock.  Bring to a boil, and let simmer.
6.  In a small bowl, whisk together remaining 1 1/2 cups stock and the flour; whisk into sauce.  Continue simmering until liquid is reduced by half and slightly thickened.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve hot with ham.

Green Bean, Watercress, and Crispy Shallot Salad
Coarse Salt and Ground Pepper
1 Pound Green Beans, trimmed
1 cup vegetable oil, such as safflower
3 Shallots, thinly sliced crosswise into rings
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from one lemon)
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch watercress, tough stems removed

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. [they say to have a big bowl of ice water ready to go to dunk the beans, but I just scoop up the green beans with my seive and rinse the beans in cold water from the faucet. Less messy and a lot less work.] Line a baking sheet with paper towels. Cook green beans in boiling water until bright green and crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Rinse in cold water to stop cooking. Cool green beans completely, then transfer to lined baking sheet and pat dry.

2. In a small saucepan, heat vegetable oil over medium-low. In a small bowl, toss shallots with flour. Working in three batches, fry shallots in oil until golden and crispy, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer shallots to paper towels and season generously with salt.

3. In a small bowl, whisk lemon juice, mustard, and olive oil to combine; season dressing with salt and pepper. Place watercress on a serving platter and drizzle with half the dressing. Toss with green beans and remaining dressing. Serve sprinkled with shallots. [not being a huge fan of fried things, I couldn't get over how much I loved these shallots!! They seem like a sophisticated indulgence, even though they are glorified onion rings.]

And, for something sweet, I made another apple pie and a chocolate pistachio torte .  Love that death by chocolate.

I chickened out of making rolls, even after a good pep-talk and fabulous recipe from my friend and roll mentor, Kristy.  Instead, I delegated the rolls, along with a few other dishes to our gracious dinner guests.  Kristy, I will make dinner rolls successfully and give the full report.  That's a new year's resolution.

For Christmas morning, however, I attempted baking with yeast, for better or for worse.  I was equipped with an acclaimed orange roll recipe, tried and true among good friends, and can you imagine the perfect Christmas picture of opening presents, while the aroma of orange rolls waft through the house from the kitchen?!  I know!

I attempted Tiffany's famous recipe:
Out of this World Rolls
 2 packages dry yeast
1/3 cup warm water
3 eggs, well beaten
4 ½ cups flour
1 cup warm water
½ cup shortening
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt

Soften yeast in ¼ cup warm water. Let stand 10 minutes. Combine dissolved yeast, eggs, 2 ½ cups flour, 1 cup warm water, shortening, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Beat until smooth. Add remaining flour to make a soft dough. Cover. Let rise until double in bulk (about 1 hour.) Punch down and refrigerate overnight. Three hours before baking, roll out as desired. For dinner rolls, divide dough in half. Roll each half into a ½” thick rectangle. Spread with butter. Starting with the long side, roll up jelly-roll style. Cut in 1” slices. Place in greased muffin tins, cut side down. Cover. Let rise 3 hours. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 7 to 8 minutes or until slightly brown. YIELD: 2 ½ dozen rolls.

1/3 cup butter
½ cup sugar
Rind of 1 orange, grated

Combine ingredients. After rolling dough into two ½” thick rectangles, divide above mixture and spread on ½ of each rectangle. Fold rectangles in half. Cut each into 12 strips with a pizza cutter. Pick up each strip and gently stretch, then tie into a knot. Place on greased baking sheet with edges, making sure the ends of the dough are tucked underneath roll. Let rise 3 hours. Bake in a 400 degree oven for 7 to 8 minutes or until slightly brown. Make sure they are baked through so they are not doughy. Drizzle with powdered sugar icing while warm. (Powdered sugar, milk, vanilla, dash of salt.)

Mine were good for the most part, except I think I made them maybe 3 times the size that they were intended.  My yield was maybe 12, instead of the recipe's suggested 2 1/2 I pulled them out, they were pretty doughy in some spots.  I cut out the dough, and we enjoyed them thoroughly

To round things out, I made some yogurt parfaits.  I loved it, even though I suspect that the boys thought they were too girly somehow.  Sorry, guys, no egg casserole today!  Let's keep things a little lighter, shall we?
Pretty Pink Parfaits
2 cups strawberry yogurt
frozen berries, thawed
1 banana
sweetened whipped cream

Layer in a parfait glass: yogurt, granola, berries, banana.  Repeat until parfait reaches the top of the glass and top with whipped cream and a tad more granola.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Good [Handmade] Stuff: matchy matchy Christmas jammers

I sewed us all some matching pajamas to be opened on Christmas Eve (which turned out to be Christmas Eve morning, while we were still in our other jammers....I couldn't wait.) and my dreams of us all opening our presents on Christmas morning with our cheery pj pants was realized.

Did you see Shane's awesome shirt? "You're Fired! --The Donald"

It might be cheesy, but the boys totally loved it. I have to take advantage of Pete's enthusiasm for anything--before we know it, he will open his matchy jammers and roll his eyes, "Ah, Mom, you mean I have to wear this?! If I wear these pajamas, then I'll, like, match with you and dad!" I'll take Pete's reaction now, which is to put his pajamas on immediately and wear them as much as possible, while insisting that we do the same. Shane was way overdue for some nice warm jammer pants, and I lined his and Pete's with some very soft white flannel. I used the Simplicity pattern 8493, which is probably the most simple pattern possible.

I love the cut of my jammers! They fit perfectly around the waist and have lots of room in the legs for lounging. The pattern for these are in Amy Butler's book, In Stitches, along with some other really fantastic sewing projects that I hope to get to soon.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Good [Kids'] Stuff: My favorite project yet

In keeping with my original plan to try and create an environment that can spark imagination, I've been thinking a great deal about the toys in our home. Because play is Pete's full-time job, it's important that he is surrounded with things that nourish his creativity. In brainstorming what to get him for Christmas, I kept thinking about a large canvas playmat that my mom made for my siblings and me. She still has it, and it continues to enchant any little visitors. It has no batteries, no small parts, and my mom's playmat still looks great after 30 years. I made one for Peter this year for Christmas and was really happy with the results...

Our playmat is set in New Haven, with our favorite spots: Modern Apizza, the medical school and hospital, our house and courtyard,the street carts where we eat our quesadillas, Lyman Orchards (which is great for the farm tractors and farm animals), our favorite beach, the Peabody Museum, Yale Art Gallery, Beinecke Library, and the theatre. We have the Bronx Zoo and Hartford Airport (which we know about really well) on the sides. There's also railroad around the periphery for trains, an ocean for ships, and a construction site for tractors.

This was a very time-consuming project, but I really loved every minute of it. This mat really captures my love of this place we live in and is both a fun thing to play with and a momento of our time here.
And Pete was ecstatic when he opened it up Christmas morning! Yay!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Good Taste: Winter Bark and Christmas Cookies

I can't recommend the winter bark enough--it's as simple as melting chocolate and it is really tasty.  From my few experiences with making chocolate bark, my observation is that the quality of the finished product lies completely with the quality of the ingredients.  I know, this is true of all cooking, but since there are so few ingredients in this treat, it makes all the difference.  You can find the recipe and cute packaging ideas here. Yum.  I bought the big pound of bittersweeet chocolate with almonds at Trader Joe's, and left out the peanuts.  The almonds and dark chocolate make it a very healthy option for Christmastime snacking.  Right?  right.

I made a variety of Christmas cookies.  I didn't venture into any new recipes, but just the tried and true, soft, tasty, I-want-to-eat-a-whole-batch sort of cookies.  

I made Ina Garten's Outrageous Chocolate Cookies:

8 ounces semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped [I use chocolate chips]
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
3/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 package (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chunks

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Heat chopped chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl in 20-second increments, stirring in between, until almost melted; do not overheat.  In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.

2. In a mixing bowl, beat eggs, brown sugar, and vanilla on high speed until light and fluffy.  Reduce speed to low; beat in melted chocolate.  Mix in flour mixture until just combined.  Stir in chocolate chunks.

3. Drop heaping tablespoons of dough 2 to 3 inches apart onto baking sheets.  Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until cookies are shiny and crackly yet soft in the centers, 12 to 15 minutes.  Cool on sheets 10 minutes; with a thin metal  spatula, transfer to racks to cool completely
*Don't worry if the batter seems thin.  It should look more like brownie batter than cookie dough.

Here is a great chocolate chip cookie recipe.  I use 1/2 cup shortening and 1/2 cup butter, rather than doing 1 cup butter.  The cookies firm up a bit better. It's a winner.

And, finally, here is my mom's trustworthy gingerbread people and gingerbread house dough recipe:
1 cup sugar
1 cup shortening
1 cup molasses
1 egg
1/2 cup hot water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ginger
5 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Cream together sugar and shortening.  Beat in molasses and egg.  Add the hot water.
2. Sift together dry ingredients and gradually add to the wet mixture; at the end, I always end up using my hands to mix this together.
3. Form dough into 3 large balls, wrapping them in plastic wrap and refrigerate until you are ready to use them.
4. Bake at 350 degrees, 6-8 minutes for gingerbread mean and a little more for larger pieces, or until lightly browned.

Here's her Royal Icing recipe, which is great glue to hold together gingerbread houses:
3 egg whites (room temperature)
3 1/3 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tarter
1. Combine and beat at a high speed for 7-10 minutes.  This dries very quickly, so keep covered with a damp cloth.

Merry Christmas!

The Good [Kids'] Stuff: Happy Halloween (maybe just a tad late.)

We had a grand Halloween this year.  My entire family congregated at my parents' house and we took our kids around the old family neighborhood.  Many of our neighbors are the same, and were surprised to see all of us back at their front doors, begging for candy 15 years later.  It was fantastic!

Because my time is limited in having complete control over Pete's costume, I wanted to do something sweet and kind of old fashioned, you know, before Pete insists on being Thomas or Diego or a power ranger.  I worked at the Beinecke Rare Book Library, which houses the James Barrie papers. These papers include Barrie's manuscripts, stage notes, costume designs, and sketches of his most famous play, Peter Pan.  This collection captures the imagination of anyone who spends time browsing its contents--Barrie's Neverland is truly magical.  Here are a few favorites:

This is the original Peter, made famous in Finding Neverland.

Having a little Peter of my own, I thought I'd try to figure out how to reinvent Barrie's Peter Pan with my very limited sewing skill set.  Not to mention that I ordered this pattern too late, and had my very nice friend ship it to me, arriving two days before Halloween.  And as I was in California, in an apartment we were renting for a month, I had only one pair of scissors that were mini scissors in a travel sewing kit.  I drove around lost, looking for the fabric store, but managed to find Joann's. Thank goodness my sister let me borrow her sewing machine!  October 29, the stars aligned and with pattern, tiny scissors, fabric, and sewing machine set up at the kitchen table, I spent the first few hours doing this:

Now, I didn't swear, but I was spouting threats like nobody's business.  As my husband was innocently sitting on the couch I was saying things like, "Oh man, in one minute, I'm going to swear." "Seriously, I'm going to swear", "I'm just going to GO OFF!" My husband said it wouldn't be a night of sewing with Becca without a few grumbles, moans, and swears under my breath.  I can't argue with that.  But, after a lot of all that, I got something figured out, and although it was nothing too impressive, it kind of resembled my original vision, and, well, I was just glad that Pete was able to wear something.  My perfectionism flew out the window long before the final fitting, and when Pete's head was too big to fit through the neck hole, I was perfectly happy to cut the collar at the neck to make room.  And, despite all the doozy mistakes that came with this project, Pete was perfectly happy with the final product.  I think he wore it for three days straight.  Way to validate your mama, Pete!