Saucy Christmas

Cranberries brighten the holiday dinner table.
Cranberries brighten the holiday dinner table.

Well, here we are, Christmas Eve 2012. I have a purring cat on my lap, a little snack on my side table, and all the fixings for tomorrow night’s turkey dinner ready to go.

Yes, I’m using simple make ahead techniques to ensure I spend most of Christmas day relaxing with family rather than feverishly cooking the feast.

Wet and dry ingredients for waffles are separately mixed, ready for breakfast – so we eat something decent before the gorging on chocolate begins.

Stuffing is in a casserole dish, ready for the oven (safest to cook it outside the bird). Carrots, celery and onions are coarsely chopped for the roasting pan to add flavour to the gravy. More carrots, potatoes and broccoli are all chopped and ready to cook as sides.

This sauce has made me a fan of the cran.
This sauce has made me a fan of the cran.

The turkey is thawing in cold water, and I’m also thawing a little jar of cranberry sauce leftover from Thanksgiving.

I’d never tried making it from scratch before. I’ve never been a fan of the cran so I always just dutifully bought the canned stuff and half the time, forget to put it out.

Something possessed me to try making my own for Thanksgiving this year and boy, am I glad I did. The recipe was so easy, a monkey could do it. It tasted great and made the house smell amazing.

It’s a Cooking Light recipe, like so many of my favourites. There were seven of us for Thanksgiving dinner and since none of us piled on the sauce, there’s enough left for five of us around the Christmas dinner table.

Festive cranberries.
Festive cranberries.

From my kitchen to yours, have a very merry Christmas and an adventurous 2013 filled with good food and laughter.

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A Baker’s Dozen…Almost

Beautiful cookies.
Beautiful cookies.

Christmas just isn’t Christmas without baking. I grew up with mom’s holiday standards: gumdrop loaf, brown sugar fudge, fruitcake for dad, pork pies (that don’t contain pork), and shortbread cookies in festive shapes that we kids loaded with coloured icing and sprinkles, hanging some on the tree and gobbling down more.

I think my first foray into my own holiday baking was in university. Somebody had a simple drop cookie recipe for shortbread. They were little more than butter and air, whipped into a frenzy, that just melted in our mouths.

I’m not sure when I started reading cooking magazines, but somewhere in my mid-twenties, their delicious-looking recipes, gorgeous photos, and inventive packaging must have sparked my first holiday baking marathon. I picked at least 10 recipes and went to town in my apartment’s tiny kitchen, with my ever-growing collection of Christmas CDs playing in the background. Within hours, every surface was covered with stacks of cookies and pans of fudge and squares.

Stacks of cookies from the holiday baking marathon.
Stacks of cookies from the holiday baking marathon.

I’d be sick as a dog and as wide as a barn door if I ate all of it myself. So I assembled an assortment of goodies in tins for my co-workers and trotted off to the office. Everyone oohed and awed as they sampled, and I realized I’d found an outlet for my holiday baking madness. And so the marathon became an annual tradition.

I’ve gone through countless pounds of butter and dozens of eggs. I’ve traipsed out to buy a new hand-held mixer when one died, its beaters lodged in gingerbread dough. (Thank goodness I now have a KitchenAid – vroom vroom!) I ever-so-thankfully received a brand new oven from my parents as an early Christmas gift when mine went on the fritz just before the big baking day. And I’ve used a wide array of containers, from tins, plastic baggies, and Chinese food boxes to mason jars, coloured cardboard boxes, and lunch bags à la brown paper packages tied up with string.

Chocolate almond biscotti
A little sweet to go with tea.

Much like running a marathon, this year’s 17-hour baking day (including packaging and clean up) was a full-body experience judging by all the parts of me that were sore by the end of the day. Am I getting old? Maybe. I should try wearing sneakers next year – they ought to be more supportive than my fuzzy house slippers. But I don’t intend to slow down. Oh no. That wouldn’t be any fun.

What’s fun is sitting with a cup of tea and Charlie Brown Christmas music, clicking through websites and flipping through old and new holiday editions of Cooking Light, Canadian Living and Martha Stewart, picking out recipes, and building a grocery list. Fun is seeing a bunch of disparate ingredients come together to form something beautiful and delicious. Fun is coaxing that fudge to soft ball stage and then beating the living daylights out of it before pouring in the pan. Fun is working that dough into shapes with excited anticipation of all the pieces of the puzzle coming together in the end.

Holiday baking.
Holiday baking.

Fun is the pleasure my treats bring to family, friends and co-workers, and even beyond. More than once, I’ve been told my cookies saved the day when unexpected guests dropped by during the busy holiday season. This year, I’m all aw shucks with several suggestions that I go pro, and one disbeliever who couldn’t fathom a non-professional producing such treats. Grin.

My favourite this year – and I think the prettiest I’ve ever made – is the raspberry linzer cookie. It was nearly a flop with dough that kept falling apart and only produced half the batch, but that’s probably because I cheated. Yes, it’s true. I’m a bad, bad girl for trying to use pre-ground almonds. But I’ll try it again – properly – and hopefully with more success, and a whole batch.

The prettiest cookie I've ever made. Delicious, too.
The prettiest cookie I’ve ever made. Delicious, too.
Sweet and sticky.
Sweet and sticky.

The Dulce de Leche cookie is a close second, although I had to add a couple of tablespoons of cold water to get the dough to stick together. And everything else is a close third.

My dozen recipes for the 2012 edition of the holiday baking marathon are below. But first, a few tips for your own baking adventure:

  • This may seem obvious, but read ALL the instructions for ALL your recipes in advance. You don’t want to be half way through and discover you need a food processor, or that something has to chill for 24 hours.
  • Dry ingredients mixed and labelled with the recipes.
    Dry ingredients mixed and labelled with the recipes.

    Mix all your dry ingredients in plastic bags, and do any chopping chocolate or toasting nuts etc. in advance. It will save you time on baking day, so your oven won’t be sitting hot and idle. Oh, and never, ever walk away from your oven when toasting nuts – watch them like a hawk because they go from toasted to burnt in mere seconds.

  • Check all your recipes for chilling time for doughs, as well as oven temperatures, baking times, and anything else that will dictate the best order. Create a game plan based on this information. For example, while my dulce de leche was cooking for 1 ½ hours, I had time to make the doughs that needed to chill. I did everything that bakes at 350 degrees before turning the temperature up to 425 for pork pies – which flopped. Boo.
  • Clear any unnecessary clutter out of your kitchen so there’s lots of space to work and to spread out cooling racks. Investing in double decker cooling racks is a great idea for small spaces.
  • You wouldn’t run a marathon without water and food, right? So sip from your water bottle and have something ready to eat for lunch and supper. I didn’t follow my own advice this year and had to send H out for sandwiches at lunchtime. Boo.
Pretty packages to share.
Pretty packages to share.

Here are the hits from the 2012 edition of the holiday baking marathon:

Raspberry linzer cookies
Dulce de leche cookies
Double chocolate minties
Chocolate crackle cookies
Black and white striped cookies
Hello Dolly bars
Butter crunch toffee
Everything cookies
Dark chocolate biscotti
Wedding cookies

Drop Shortbread

Lemon-scented shortbread.
Lemon-scented shortbread.

I decided to make these lemon scented by adding about a teaspoon of lemon rind and replacing the vanilla with lemon juice. I also rolled them and gently patted them down, because I wanted a shape that’s less likely to break when packaged.

Ingredients:

2 c. butter
1 c. icing sugar
1/2 c. corn starch
3 c. flour
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
Preparation:
Mix until creamy. Drop on cookie sheet by tablespoonful. Bake at 350 for 8-10 min.
Maple Cream Fudge
A lady who used to come to my aquafit class brought me a little package of this fudge as a gift one year. I took one bite and begged for the recipe. You may want help with the beating as it takes a long time. But it’s so worth it. Don’t forget to scrape the pot.
Maple Cream Fudge.
Maple Cream Fudge.

Ingredients:
3 c. brown sugar
2 tbsp flour
2 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp butter
pinch of salt
1 c. evaporated milk

Preparation:
Cook on medium heat, stirring constantly (wear an oven mitt to avoid burns), until soft ball stage (7 or 8 minutes after it boils). To check for soft ball stage, put a teaspoonful of the mixture in a glass of ice water. If it’s all stringy, it’s not at soft ball stage yet. When it’s ready, it will form a soft ball.

Remove from heat and beat. Mixture will turn glossy. Keep beating. Long after your arm feels like it’s going to fall off, the mixture will thicken. Keep beating. When the glossiness fades from the surface and the spoon leaves traces through the mixture, pour into pan. Let cool for about a half hour. Cut into squares and let harden.

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Garden Goodness

garden
Goodness from the garden.

It’s been a mild fall but the temperature is starting to dip. That means the soil in our raised beds is freezing. When I went out to pull carrots for supper the other night, I had to get a spade and do some serious hacking and digging. We’ll have to take advantage of mild days this weekend to harvest the rest of the carrots, beets and brussel sprouts to enjoy through the winter.

This is the first year since I was a kid that I’ve been able to pull and munch straight from the garden. (I remember pulling radishes, washing them in the pool, and crunching away.) This year’s bounty is thanks to H who has a very green thumb. He’d sat in front of the roaring fire, pouring over seed catalogues and peppering me with questions about what I wanted to grow.

This spring, we got a load of organic soil and set about building the raised beds using reclaimed wood. (H has lots and lots and LOTS of reclaimed wood. He loves wood like I love tomatoes.) At first, the beds probably looked like giant litterboxes to all the neighbourhood cats.

Then, things started to sprout.

Green goodness sprouting.
Green goodness sprouting.
This is heaven.

The string beans were good, but I was in absolute heaven when the first tomatoes ripened. Three grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches in two days – that’s true love. Then came the carrots, beets and peppers. It was wonderful to savour sweet little orange coins that went from garden to plate within an hour. Our green peppers were the crispest I’ve ever had. And I had a good chuckle as H peeled cooked beets next to my mother for Thanksgiving dinner, terrified he’d get purple juice on her white sweater.

zucchini
The taste of summer

We enjoyed the fresh gifts from the garden, but I’ve got a lot to learn about managing the harvest. First, I need to learn more precisely what’s ready when. Second, I need to be prepared to pounce on the produce and use every last bean without anything going to waste because we didn’t pick and eat or preserve it in time. We lost a pile of beans and peas, about half the tomatoes, some of the peppers, and half the celery. That just can’t happen again.

But I did manage to freeze a good amount of veg for the winter: 16 500 ml jars of tomato sauce, two large freezer bags of string beans, a small bag of peas, two small bags of shredded zucchini, and two large bags of celery soup. This is in addition to string beans, broccoli, carrots, beets, peppers, celery, herbs and tomatoes that we picked and used in meals on the spot. And the pie…that awful pie. But also a wonderful Cooking Light chocolate zucchini loaf.

Next year…look out garden, I’m going to cook you all up.

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Quickie Pasta

Toms, shrimp, garlic and parm to toss with pasta.
Toms, shrimp, garlic and parm to toss with pasta.

Sometimes, you just want pasta – not now, but RIGHT now. This quickie pasta dish satisfies my growling tummy in about 15 minutes. I picked it up watching someone else prepare something similar at a gathering.

Now, those of you who like to follow a recipe might be annoyed with this. I follow recipes more often than not, so I know how you feel. But this is so simple, you really and truly do not need a recipe. Trust me.

First, get your pot of water boiling for the pasta. You can use any kind of pasta. (See? I said it was simple.) Once the water boils, I toss in about two handfuls for a nice bowl of cooked pasta – but I have small hands so you may want a little less.

To measure a serving spaghetti or fettuccini, I aim for a bunch that’s about the diameter of a quarter. Cook according to package directions, omitting salt and fat.

Want...pasta...now...
One serving, coming up.

While the pasta cooks, pour a good “lug” of olive oil (as Jamie Oliver is so fond of saying) into a pan. As soon as you can start to smell it, toss in a bunch of grape tomatoes that’s proportionate to your amount of pasta. For one serving, I toss in about a dozen. For three of us, I use the whole pint. No grape tomatoes? No problem. Halve some cherry toms or chop up any other larger variety.

Add some freshly ground pepper and a pinch of sea salt. If you want a vegetarian dish, you can stick with tomatoes and just add some bottled minced garlic for the last 30 seconds of cooking. Or you could add more chopped veggies – zuchinni, peppers, whatever. Either way, just add the drained, cooked pasta to the pan, toss it all up and serve with some parm, feta or asiago.

I keep frozen shrimp on hand for this dish. Tail on, tail off – it’s up to you. Once tomatoes skins start breaking, add about as many shrimp as you have tomatoes to the pan. If they’re pre-cooked, just sauté until they’re heated. If they’re raw, haul the pan off the heat as soon as they turn pink. Either way, add the garlic for the last 30 seconds, then toss in the pasta and serve with cheese. Maybe add a sprinkle of chopped fresh basil, too. Yum.

Quickie pasta topped with parm.
Quickie pasta topped with parm.

You could add chopped, pre-cooked chicken or steak to this little dish, or pretty much anything your heart and taste buds desire. Oooh – a little bacon and corn – wouldn’t that be good.

My one tip for this and all dishes that come together quickly – get all your ingredients together before you turn on a burner. If you’ve got your head in the deep freeze searching for shrimp while your tomatoes sauté, you may well come back to a smoky kitchen. And then it’s not such quickie pasta.

Try it out and let me know what variation makes your mouth water.

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