Friday, December 28, 2007

Butterballs (the cookies, not the turkeys)

I was inspired to try a couple of new cookies for my holiday baking this year. This post over at Home-Ec 101 was one source of inspiration. They had several yummy-sounding cookies featured during their Cookie-a-Day series, but this one really caught my attention. Primarily because it sounded very easy.

But as I am wont to do, I searched for other versions of the recipe and developed my own sort of Frankenrecipe:

Russian Tea Cakes aka Butterball Cookies
1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup finely ground toasted hazelnuts

First, the nuts. You can use any nut you like (though I recommend sticking with the true tree nuts such as pecans or walnuts and not the legume "pea" nut). To toast them, I just dumped a 6 ounce bag of hazelnut pieces onto the pan of my toaster oven and baked them on 350 degrees for a few minutes. Note that they toast quickly in a small toaster oven so keep an eye on them. Next, put them in a small electric "nut chopper" or food processor to chop them to bits and powder, essentially. This will flavor the flour.

Next, cream the butter and sugar until blended completely. It should be light and fluffy. Blend in the vanilla. Combine the nut bits and powder with the flour and salt and blend into the first mixture until it becomes a uniform dough.

If your kitchen is really warm, you'll want to refrigerate the dough for a little while to get it stiffened up a bit. Form the dough into small balls--about one inch in diameter and set on an ungreased cookie sheet about two inches apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes at 400 degrees. Be careful not to overbake--these cookies will not brown and are a bit on the fragile side when they come out of the oven. As soon as they're out, carefully roll them in powdered sugar and set aside to cool. That last step is semi-optional. You can let them cool a few minutes before you roll them. The powdered sugar may not stick as well, but it also won't get gloppy when combined with the butter. Or you can just dust them with sugar instead of rolling them, too.

Your choice because at that point, it's all for show. If you've sampled the dough, you already know this is a dang fine cookie. This recipe makes about...four or five or six dozen (very delicious) small cookies. That's an estimate because I didn't count them. And many were eaten in the sugaring process. You can also make a few and keep the dough in the fridge for batches a few days later (because you might get a little tired of the rolling). Just seal up the bowl with a lid or plastic wrap so the dough doesn't get dried out.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

I've been busy, busy, busy, but I will post soon about all the holiday delights I've baked and/or consumed. In the meantime, if you celebrate it, have a Merry Christmas! And enjoy this photo of a giant lemon that came from near Jacksonville, Florida. I really wish I could have seen the tree this thing was plucked from.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Turkish delight

Preface: I'm kind of slow-witted sometimes. I mean, I'm reasonably intelligent and can conjugate most English verbs and a few French and Spanish ones as well, but I'm not always the quickest on the draw.

That said, this past weekend, I was over in the Brentioch area of town and was hungry, so I stopped at a little gyro place for some falafel. The falafel was going to take a few minutes, so I decided to duck in to the grocery next door because it was advertised as an African grocery and I was intrigued.

The grocery is Gateway 2 Africa (warning: sound), which is on Nolensville Road, just south of Old Hickory Boulevard. The people running the store were so incredibly nice, friendly and helpful, that it made me slightly less disturbed about the selection of unusual dead animal parts in the freezers. I quickly scooted past the various goat parts and headed over to the cookies and candies. Mmm...plaintain chips and ginger cookies (tons of ginger cookies). I thought that I was done choosing my purchases when, just as I reached the register, I saw it--a Kit Kat. And not just any Kit Kat, but what appeared to be a British Kit Kat. And next to the Kit Kat? More Cadbury bars than you can shake a stick at. I ended up getting nearly $20 worth of candy bars. Why? Because these candy bars are made with a different recipe that produces a different taste than the American versions. And also because they're not made with Hershey's chocolate (which, indisputably has been formulated for the distinctly American palate for chocolate).

The Cadbury Fruit and Nut bars are my favorites of the "bars" (Raisinets are still number one of the general candy population), so I definitely got one of them, but I also got a few that I'd never seen before--a rum raisin version and something called "Turkish."

Here's where the dots become very connected for me...finally. I bought the "Turkish" having absolutely no idea what that meant. I've never read "The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe," so I wasn't aware that Turkish Delight was a sort of confection. Frankly, I thought it was going to have a rich coffee flavor, because that's what I think of when I hear "Turkish" with regard to flavoring. I thought this despite the fact that (I now see) there's a photo of a piece of the candy split open that reveals a pink center. And much of the package is a bright pink. It's very pretty. I love pink. But I still didn't expect to find pink stuff inside the chocolate because, well, I just wasn't paying attention. And I skipped a rite of passage that most children make in reading the C.S. Lewis books. I wasn't even aware that Turkish Delight enjoyed a surge in popularity after the release of the Narnia movie. Luckily, I have wikipedia to tell me these things...years later.

But I digress. I turns out that Turkish delight generally has a rose flavor to it. I was trying to figure out this familiar taste when I turned to the internet to figure out what the heck I was eating. It certainly makes sense now...all that pink. And, oh yeah, that rose is a popular flavoring for Turkish (and other Mediterranean) desserts. I know this since I actually own a jar of rose jam purchased at one of my favorite (and Turkish) restaurants, Anatolia. Duh.

And as if you weren't convinced enough that my thinking cap was missing the day I visited the African grocery, I'll tell you I thought I was buying British versions of these candies (because they looked like what I'd bought in the UK) but they were actually from South Africa. As in, from Africa. Double duh.

Incidentally, I really liked the Turkish Dairy Milk bar, but I like rose flavoring (and roses themselves, for that matter). It's an acquired taste, though. If you'd like to acquire one yourself, go visit the store. They have a little cafe as well that those of you who are a little more adventurous (and carnivorous) would probably really enjoy.

Lemon Herb Chik'n

I'm generally not one of those vegetarians that eats a lot of meat substitutes. I didn't much like meat before becoming a vegetarian, so I don't see the need to replace it. I eat Gardenburgers because I like the taste and consistency (they're not hamburger-like) and avoid the Boca Burgers because they're too hamburger-like. Creepy.

An exception would be Quorn, though. The Quorn Chik'n nuggets are tasty and just as good as I remember the nuggets from Chik-Fil-A being (well, almost). And the Naked Chik'n Cutlets are amazingly versatile and have the texture of a good chicken breast (albeit not as stringy). The cutlets were on sale at Kroger the other day, so I picked up a box and decided to make one of my old favorites, Lemon Herb Chicken.

I started out by pouring in six tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and four tablespoons of lemon juice in a shallow glass baking pan. I stirred in about a teaspoon of minced garlic, a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of oregano, and a generous amount of crushed dried rosemary (I really love rosemary). I stirred it all up and placed two frozen Chik'n breasts in the mixture and spooned it over them as well. I then sprinkled more oregano, rosemary, and pepper on top and set the dish in the refrigerator.

In the meantime, I cooked some organic brown basmati rice. When there was about 20 minutes left on the rice, I placed the Chik'n in the oven and baked it for 18 minutes at 400 degrees. The marinade for the Chik'n makes a good sauce for the rice, though it's not quite the same as with real chicken that has broth that cooks out, but it's just as good. I placed the Chik'n on the rice and drizzled the marinade/sauce on top. I think marinating the Chik'n helped ensure that it didn't get dried out while cooking, because not only was the flavor really good, the Chik'n itself was flavorful and moist. It was probably better than if it had been made with real chicken!

I didn't serve a side dish with this. I opted instead to get my greens by starting with a Mediterranean-ish-style salad of mixed baby lettuces, black olives, sauteed onions, and roasted red peppers. I topped the salad with crumbled goat cheese (because that's what I had on hand) and a little salt and freshly-ground pepper.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sesame Ginger Tofu Noodle Salad

Tuesday night, we had a potluck dinner for our monthly vegetarian meetup. The dish I made for the last potluck (the dish that shall not be named) was a bomb, so I was really hoping that I could make something that was really tasty this time around.

As with most potlucks, it's best to take a dish that doesn't need to be cooked or reheated upon arrival, so I decided upon a tofu noodle salad after perusing recipes over at Mac & Cheese and seeing this one for a Udon Noodle Salad. I'm a bit of an experimenter, so I tend to look at 5 or 10 other similar recipes and pull out the parts from each that I like to form a bit of a Frankenrecipe. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Fortunately, based on the fact that copious amounts of this noodle salad were consumed, I'd say this one worked. I also got several compliments that seemed rather genuine. Additionally, I really liked it myself!

I tripled the recipe for the potluck, but I'm going to include only the manageable size ingredient list for you (as in, a side dish for four people or dinner for two).

4-6 ounces udon noodles (approximately)
1 tablespoon high-heat vegetable oil
1 package of extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into small cubes
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoon(s) grated fresh ginger (depending on taste--I like more ginger)
1 tablespoon minced or finely chopped garlic (I use the stuff in a jar)
1 teaspoon chile sauce (that stuff you get in the Asian grocery; add more if you like more of a kick)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 to 1 cup each of shredded carrots and fresh cucumber cut into matchsticks
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
Salt (preferably ground sea salt)

Cook the noodles according to the package instructions. Drain, rinse with cold water, drain again and set aside. Heat vegetable oil to medium frying pan on high heat for a couple of minutes until good and hot and add tofu. Cook until golden brown on at least two sides, change heat to low and then remove tofu to a paper towel to drain and sprinkle with salt.

Add the sesame oil, ginger, garlic and chile sauce to the frying pan and cook (on low heat) long enough to infuse the oil with flavors. Do not let the garlic and ginger brown and stick together. Remove from heat and add soy sauce and sugar and stir until sugar dissolves.

Scrape the mixture into a mixing bowl (with a flexible spatula) and add the lemon juice. Add noodles in manageable increments and mix to coat with oil. Add carrots, cucumber, tofu, and sesame seeds and mix to combine.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

I started making oatmeal cookies a few years ago at my mother's request. The dough for these cookies can get rather difficult to stir and if you've got any arthritis in your hands or elbows, it can be downright impossible.

I tried several recipes I found in various cookbooks--some had more flour than others, some used quick oats instead of old-fashioned and so on--but the recipe I like the best came from the inside of the lid of the Quaker Oats oatmeal. Here's the recipe with a few tips and slight modifications.

1 cup/2 sticks margarine or butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed (I used dark brown sugar)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (I usually use all-purpose whole wheat flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon (or a little more if you really like it)
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional, but I use it)
3 cups uncooked oatmeal (you can use quick oats or old-fashioned oats)
1 cup raisins

Additional options:
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 teaspoon ground ginger

Pre-heat oven to 350F degrees. Beat together margarine/butter with the sugars until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat well. Combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon and (optional) salt and ginger in a bowl and then add to the mixture and mix well. Stir in oats (about a cup at a time) and raisins and (optional) nuts. Drop by small spoonfuls (about an inch in diameter) on an ungreased cookie sheet and bake 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for a minute and remove to a wire rack. Yield: about four or five dozen (depending on cookie size).

If you're confused about what oats to buy, here's a cheat sheet on the various types of oats. I use the old-fashioned oats for nice, chewy cookies, but it does help to refrigerate the dough for about 20-30 minutes before baking as well as between batches so they don't spread too much. Also, the original recipe calls for the cookies to be baked 10-12 minutes, but I bake mine for about 15 minutes. Note that they'll continue to brown after being removed from the oven, so be sure not to overcook lest you get oatmeal discs instead of oatmeal cookies. I also like to add in some chocolate chips to a portion of the batter as well. It's a nice way to make an otherwise nutritious cookie somewhat bad for you.

Last year, I decided to mix this recipe up a little bit and made oatmeal-cherry-chocolate cookies with some dried cherries. Don't bother. The taste of the cherries couldn't hold up to the rest of the cookie and though fairly good, the cookies weren't quite cherrilicious enough. Stick with the raisins. They're good for you.

Friday, December 7, 2007

The four-hour meal

Yes, it actually took me four hours, start to finish, to prepare this meal. Had I some experience (and/or a sous chef), it would have taken about an hour, but I'm a novice, you know.

The first thing I made was the element that I was most unsure of--because all I had was a suggestion from Claudia, but no recipe to follow. I poked around on the internet and then came up with a fairly tasty yogurt-garlic-cumin sauce. This process took about 30-45 minutes. I zested a lemon. I combined ingredients slowly. But then I had it. And I didn't measure a thing. So, this is about as good as I can do for a recipe:

Mediterranean-style yogurt cumin sauce
About 1/2 cup of plain yogurt
About half the zest of one small lemon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 or 2 teaspoons minced garlic
A few drops of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

After that, I started preparing my onion. Half the onion was cut into long-ish pieces to be caramelized, the other half chopped. I started caramelizing the onions (which can take a while) and then set about peeling and chopping the sweet potatoes (while trying to keep an eye on the caramelizing onions). At least I was smart this time and got small sweet potatoes at the grocery. I spent more time peeling, but it was worth it not to kill myself chopping them up into bits.

At some point, I started preparing the Israeli couscous, which I cooked with a mix of half water and half vegetable broth for a little extra flavor. How are those onions doing? Still caramelizing. Okay.

Once the onions were done, I set them aside and started cooking the sweet potato hashbrowns. Nothing much to this recipe--I just saute the chopped sweet potatoes and onions in some olive oil and sprinkle them with salt, fresh ground pepper and a little ground red pepper while they're cooking. Very good and fairly healthy. I usually cook them until they're cooked, but still have some resistance. Unfortunately, I cooked them too far in advance this time and they were a little mushy.

Next up, I had to chop some red bell peppers to roast in the toaster oven. And prepare the broccoli for roasting. By this time, I was about an hour and a half into the process, thanks to this very labor-intensive meal I'd planned. Once the red peppers had roasted, I added them, along with the caramelized onions and some capers to the Israeli couscous.

Then came the fun part. That is sarcasm, by the way.

I've always been willing to pay whatever amount of money I needed to pay for baklava. I love the stuff, but you couldn't pay me to make it. I don't have the patience. Now, why I thought that this wouldn't be that big a deal, I don't know. Anyhoo, I first had to convince the fillo dough to thaw by sitting it on the heating vent. So about 8 of the outside sheets were rendered unusable. Once separated off and disposed of, I began the arduous task of preparing the fillo pockets. I melted some butter and went to it. I laid out the dough, I brushed and then I melted more butter. And then brushed and melted and brushed and melted and brushed. I'm not sure of the final count of sheets. I just kept going until I got to the end. I think I went through at least half a stick of butter.

When I finally finished preparing the dough, I plopped down the Israeli couscous mixture and set about folding it up into a pocket. This sounds much easier than it was. Apparently, I did not use enough butter, so instead of a pocket, I got a double-open-ended burrito. No matter. Looks don't count at home, right?

So I stuck the "pocket" in the oven at 400 degrees, with the broccoli. And then the broccoli came out. And the hash browns were getting cold, but that fillo pastry was nowhere near brown. When it did get brown, I had to flip it. And wait some more. I turned on the eye and re-heated the hash browns. I stuck the broccoli back in and lo, just before the fifth hour was about to turn, I was finished.

So, here it is: fillo pockets stuffed with Israeli couscous, roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, and capers topped with a yogurt cumin sauce and served with sweet potato hash browns and roasted broccoli. Also known as the four-hour meal. Also known as one of the tastiest meals I've ever made...that I will never make again.

Many thanks to Claudia for her tips and suggestions.

I'm putting "sous chef" on my Christmas list.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


I still need to tell you about my four-hour meal, but it's seeming like it will take me as long to write about it as it did to cook it. Nonetheless.

As I mentioned before, this is the time of year when I like to do some baking. So I've had to evaluate the contents of my refrigerator and pantry to determine what I need from the grocery to spend the day baking without having to make a trip mid-prep.

I had two partial cartons of eggs. Despite the fact that eggs are good for three-to-five weeks after the published expiration date, the now-ex-boyfriend wouldn't eat an egg that had been purchased longer ago than a week or two. I'd intended to use the remaining eggs for something but apparently never got around to it. I checked the expiration date to see if I could use them in any of my planned goodies and, nope, no dice. Expiration dates: June and July. Yikes. I've really had bad eggs in my refrigerator for months? Obviously, I'm not a fan of eggs.

Which brings me to this lovely webpage: How to Replace Eggs in Your Cooking. I'm still not 100% on board with using margarine instead of butter, but I might try that tofu trick and invest in some Earth Balance to see about making some of my recipes vegan (and a lot healthier).

Now I have to figure out how to dispose of six-month-old eggs. Unfortunately, the wiki answers on this topic are of little help. I'm thinking about a little patch of land at the back of my property instead of the landfill. Or maybe a little patch of land at the back of my neighbor's property. I kid, I kid. Kind of.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Christmas gift suggestions for you

I've been doing a lot of eating and not a lot of writing lately. I apologize, but I will get back to it soon. I had a meal the other night that took four hours to prepare. Four hours. I was whipped afterwards, but--thankfully--it was good. But I won't be making it again!

I'm very lucky--I don't have a long Christmas gift list and the few people that are on it are happy to get edible gifts. I'll be making (and posting) several of my favorites this year, including banana nut bread and oatmeal raisin cookies as well as hoping to add some new, possibly vegan treats to the bunch.

But I can't make everything and The Best Friend™ gets a few bonuses. First, a selection of chocolates from Jacques Torres (that's Mr. Chocolate) as well as a selection of goodies from Family Farm Defenders.

I don't get credit for buying local from FFD since I don't live in Wisconsin, but it's fair trade cheese (not from factory farms) and it's made with vegetarian rennet, so it's a cause I'm reasonably happy to support (since I've not yet been able to figure out a way to kick the cheese addiction). I think I'll skip the sausage, though and hope that The Best Friend™ is happy with a selection of cheeses, crackers, and other (vegetarian) Wisconsin goodies.

And, yeah, I'm going to order a few things for myself, too.