Friday, December 28, 2007

Ina Garten's Vegetable Pot Pie

L, Argos
and I have had a blissful week of vacation, in which we've had good, relaxing fun with friends and family, slept ridiculously late, and experimented with new dishes.

I've been itching to try recipes that are a bit more time-consuming, or at least more unusual, than our regular weekday fare, and L's mom gave me inspiration in the form of a copy of Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Parties! cookbook for Christmas. I love the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks- her recipes taste fabulous, and they always come out beautifully on the first try.

Last night, we tackled Ina's recipe for Vegetable Pot Pie. We both grew up eating very little in the way of classic American dishes, and neither of us have tried pot pie in any form, so I was really intrigued by this recipe.

My original idea was to make something meatless and chock full of nutritious vegetables, since we've been eating so much rich holiday food lately; however, I soon discovered that this pot pie contains a stunning amount of butter, so the idea that we were making something really healthy quickly went out the window. I did feel a bit better about everything when I realised that we'd added enough vegetables to at least triple the recipe- we ended up with one giant pot pie that completely filled our 6 3/4 quart Le Creuset wide dutch oven, leaving just enough room for the thick crust (eek!).

As we used only what we have on hand from our winter farm share, we omitted the asparagus and increased the amounts of all other vegetables in the original recipe to somewhere between 2-3 cups each. To that, we added approximately 2-3 cups each sliced leeks and roughly chopped celeriac, rutabagas, and parsnips. I doubled all sauce ingredients except the butter, and I also forgot to add the cream, but it worked out beautifully and was rich enough without, so I think I'll omit the cream and decrease the butter in the sauce from now on.

Since we made one large pot pie, I baked it for an hour and 20 minutes, covering the crust halfway through baking (for about 20 minutes total) with aluminum foil to prevent over-browning. A cookie sheet, placed under the oven rack to catch errant sauce drips, helped tremendously with cleanup.

While this vegetable pot pie is time consuming (especially in the vegetable prep department) and rich enough that I wouldn't make it every weekend, we were both very pleased with the results. The vegetables were tender without being mushy, and I was happy to discover that they retained their distinct textures and flavours, despite being cooked together for so long. The sauce was wonderfully thick, velvety and satisfyingly savoury without being overly floury, and the pastry crust was a beautiful golden brown on top, airy and tender underneath, and thick enough to provide a foil for the tender vegetables.

Overall, we both agreed that this was a success- a very comforting and satisfying winter dish!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Scottish Pies

I love this!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

"And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?" -Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

Today, in true Czech style, so that we might see a zlaté prasátko (golden pig), we will eat nothing and drink only tea until we enjoy a big Christmas Eve dinner. Some Czechs just avoid meat during the day, but this year we're going whole hog (har har)- or at least attempting to- in order to see what happens!

When we were younger, my sister and I swore that it was only the hunger hallucinations that produced golden pigs, and perhaps we were more correct than we knew! Despite the fact that she and I thought it all very silly at the time, I've come to appreciate just how comforting family traditions can be, especially around the holidays.

In the early evening, we will head to L's parent's home for a big family gathering and the celebratory Feast of the Seven Fishes- since they're simplifying things this year, it will be stuffed squid and homemade pizza, and, as always, an array of fabulous desserts. To me, it's not really Christmas without a big celebration on December 24th, so I am thrilled that we'll be able to take part in the Italian festivities this year.

Late tonight, we come home with the puppers to open a few presents in honour of Czech Christmas. We'll end the night very late, with the most decadent hot chocolate we can concoct and my favourite Christmas movie: How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Then, it's off to bed so that Santa has a chance to deposit the rest of the presents under the tree (I'd better set my alarm clock for early that morning so I have a chance to... erm... help Santa out)!

To my family and anyone who will celebrate Christmas tonight: Veselé Vánoce! I wish you all a very warm and merry holiday!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Baked French Toast

Due to a happy set of circumstances this year, we were lucky enough to spend many of our weekends with friends. When our lives get really busy, it's easy to forget how comforting and rejuvenating it is to share long, leisurely meals with good friends; I especially love breakfasts, with everyone in cozy pajamas and robes, rumpled hair (sometimes sticking out at all angles, or in my case, long and tangled), steaming mugs of coffee and tea warming cold hands, and a satisfying meal to start the day.

When we have house guests, I like to minimize the amount of energy-intensive breakfast cooking we do in the mornings by relying on dishes that can be assembled the night before: sweet bread puddings, savoury stratas, and conventional recipes that have been tweaked to make sleepy mornings just a bit less hectic. If you've got house guests this holiday season, it's a great time to fall back on something this simple for breakfast.

One dish that has been particularly successful in our house is a recipe for Baked French Toast that I found in The Gourmet Cookbook. We love to make it with challah or brioche, and since both types of bread come most often in large, thick loaves, I increase the amount of custard by at least 50% to ensure that there is enough liquid to moisten every slice of bread. I especially love it when a few edges get a bit toasted and caramelized!

Like its pan-cooked sibling, baked french toast is fabulous served with just about anything: maple syrup, fresh berries, sugar and lemon juice, Nutella, or any kind of jam (I highly recommend Damson Plum and Sweet Crabapple Preserves). A heaping platter of bacon served alongside never hurts, either.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Winter Solstice

So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!

- Susan Cooper, The Shortest Day

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Menu for Hope 4

I know I'm a bit late to the party, but while there's still time to donate, I wanted to throw in a quick post about the Menu for Hope 4 campaign going on over at Chez Pim.

In the interest of making this short and sweet, I'll cut and paste some basic info from the lovely Pim's site so you can learn more (see below)!

Happily, you still have time to donate to a great cause, and you'll have a chance at some of those wonderful, generous treats- you have until December 21 (this Friday) to buy tickets, and the results will be announced on Wednesday, January 9, 2008 at Chez Pim.

In this world of plentiful food for the lucky and so little- sometimes nothing at all- for so, so many more, no one should have to go hungry.

What are you waiting for?


What is Menu for Hope?

Menu for Hope is an annual fundraising event in support of the UN World Food Programme. Five years ago, the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia inspired me to find a way to help, and the very first Menu for Hope was born. In 2006, Menu for Hope raised US$60,925.12 to help the UN World Food Programme feed the hungry.

Each year, food bloggers from all over the world join forces to host the Menu for Hope online raffle, offering an array of delectable culinary prizes. For every US$10, the donor receive a virtual raffle ticket toward a prize of their choice. This year, the prizes include once in a lifetime experiences such as touring the elBulli laboratory with Ferran Adrià , dining on a historic British meal prepared by Heston Blumenthal, or joining Harold McGee on a lunch date to satisfy a lifetime's worth of cooking curiosity. You can also tag along with your favorite blogger on a tour of their favorite markets, restaurants, or even receive a care package fashioned especially for you from your favorite bloggers themselves. All you need is $10 and a bit of luck.

We may never eradicate hunger from the face of the earth, but why should that stop us from trying?

Who benefits from Menu for Hope 4?

Wfplogosmall This year for the 4th annual Menu for Hope, we are again supporting the UN World Food Programme. WFP is the world’s largest food aid agency, working with over 1,000 other organizations in over 75 countries. In addition to providing food, the World Food Program helps hungry people to become self-reliant so that they escape hunger for good.

With a special permission from the WFP, the funds raised by Menu for Hope 4 will be earmarked for the school lunch program in Lesotho, Africa. We chose to support the school lunch program because providing food for the children not only keeps them alive, but helps them stay in school so that they learn the skills to feed themselves in the future.

We chose to support the program in Lesotho because it is a model program in local procurement - buying food locally to support local farmers and the local economy. Instead of shipping surplus corn across the ocean, the WFP is buying directly from local subsistent farmers who practice conservation farming methods in Lesotho to feed the children there.

We feed the kids, keep them in school, and support their parents and community farming. This sustainable approach to aid is something we believe in and strongly support.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Christmas Cookies: New England Molasses Gingerbread Cookies

I absolutely despise molasses (no shoofly pie for me, thanks), but for some reason, when the strong molasses flavour is tempered by aromatic spices and the gentle heat of ginger, as it is in gingerbread, I'm in heaven.

I think this has quite a lot to do with my paternal grandmother. When I was a child, my Bohemian babička, or Czech grandmother, and her Czech friends would get together in their Chicago kitchens during the holiday season, and together they would bake and decorate amazingly delectable, incredibly gorgeous perniky, or Czech gingerbread cookies. The icing was always pure, snowy white, and if I was lucky, I'd find tiny silver nonpareils sprinkled strategically over the lines and swirls of icing.

At the end of November, the perniky would arrive at our house, carefully packed between layers of pristine white tissue paper, in a wide, flat, white pâtisserie pastry box beautifully tied up with twine. For some reason, my grandmother used only twine- never, ever scotch tape- when she wrapped gifts. I've never got the hang of that particular skill.

Once I knew the cookies had arrived, I'd beg and plead with my mother, but to no avail- I was allowed only one cookie each day leading up to Christmas Eve- the day Czechs celebrate Christmas. At the time, I thought it supremely unreasonable, but now that I've learned how much work really goes into decorated cookies, I understand her thinking. Treats this time-consuming to make should be savoured slowly and appreciatively, even by greedy five-year-olds!

For some stupid reason, I never thought to ask for the perniky recipe while my grandmother was alive- perhaps they do taste better when made with mysterious ingredients by a grandma- and I've been looking for a comparable recipe ever since she passed away. Even more frustrating is the fact that I have a book of her recipes that was discovered by my father and given to me last Christmas, but so far I haven't been able to find her gingerbread cookies amid the pages and pages of recipes written in her tiny, perfectly elegant script.

Luckily, while browsing online collections of Christmas cookie recipes in November, I came across
Bon Appétit's recipe for New England Molasses Gingerbread Cookies and saw that a few reviewers likened them to traditional German Pfeffernüsse and Lebkuchen. I knew at once that this recipe would be a good place to start.

The dough was soft and a bit tricky to work with, but it was also fairly forgiving and much easier to handle when I worked in small amounts, leaving the rest to chill in the 'fridge. I used regular (not robust or blackstrap) molasses, doubled the spices, and added a few good shakes (probably about a teaspoon each) of allspice and nutmeg to the mix. I also used Dorie Greenspan's Royal Icing recipe, which immediately became my new favourite- the icing was incredibly easy to pipe smoothly, stayed pliable in the pastry bag for at least a few hours, and hardened to a gorgeously snowy white, durable, faintly citrus finish with just the right amount of sweetness.

I used a few favourite cookie cutter shapes, including the traditional lucky Czech zlaté prasátko (golden Christmas pig) in two different sizes: medium-sized 2-3 inch and tiny 1-inch diameter. Decorating them took a long time, but once you get into a rhythm, everything goes quickly and smoothly (though I did have to take breaks to stretch out my arms and hands). Having a glass of wine on hand definitely helps, too.

The day I baked them, the gingerbread cookies were crisp and tasty, with a lovely blend of spices that intensified after the first bite. I was happy with them, but admitted to myself that something was missing- they weren't quite what I remembered. As most gingerbread needs a bit of time to improve, however, I hoped that these might as well, and I was not disappointed. A few days later, they had softened considerably to a more cake-like crumb, the spices noticeably more intense and complex- a flavour, when mingled with the sweet crunch of the icing, very, very much like my grandmother's perniky. I have rediscovered my childhood addiction, and in case you can't tell, these are the Christmas cookies of which I am most proud!

I've since found Czech gingerbread recipes online that include rum, coffee, honey, and ground spices like mace, star anise, aniseed, black pepper and coriander. I'm tempted to give other combinations a try, but am thrilled that I have a solid recipe to rely on each year! I suspect they'll never be quite as perfect as they are in my memories, but isn't that always the case?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Christmas Cookies: Pecan Fingers

Christmas is that time of year when we, like so many other people, pull out all the stops when it comes to sweets. Into cookies and cakes go dark, rich Valrhona and Ghirardelli chocolate bars and cocoa powder, fragrant roasted nuts, shiny glaceed fruits, sticky sweet dates and dried figs, glittering candied citrus peel, spicy crystallized ginger, syrupy-thick molasses, local wildflower honey, Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, vibrantly yellow farm eggs (so tasty that we won't buy anything else), creamy, rich bars of European-style butter, butter and more butter...

In spite of my adoration for all these luscious ingredients, we don't often eat desserts at home, save the few times throughout the year when I get the urge to bake. I certainly can bake reasonably well (i.e. I can follow instructions of well-written recipes), but I have to be in a baking mood to really enjoy it.

Our friend Ida, on the other hand, is absolutely, positively, without a doubt a baking queen. She's an amazing, intuitive baker, and I am in love with her strawberry cheesecake (best made, it turns out, with a cocktail in hand) and carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. When we're lucky, she sends us home with sweets, but alas, it's always too dark to get decent pictures, and the yummy goodness is always gone in a flash anyway.

In any case, I do get the urge to bake like mad during the Christmas season. Spicy, citrusy, chocolaty- whatever the flavour, intense sweet aromas waft through the warm house. There is something so comforting about a warm kitchen full of tempting scents. Happily, I still have the energy for some intense cookie baking, so last night, I tested my fourth Christmas cookie recipe: Pecan Fingers or Puckle Warts.

When I was forming the pecan fingers, I couldn't help but notice that they looked more like shiny, pecan-studded baby... well, I won't say it. It's a bit gross, albeit somewhat amusing. I guess I'm not that good at forming cookies into appetizing log shapes. Is that even possible? Anyone?

With all that butter, too, I wondered how the cookies would hold up to being rolled between warm hands and baked in the oven for such a long time. Is one inch of space between the cookies really enough? Would they spread out too much? I'm glad to report that they came out exactly as described in the recipe, partially due, I am sure, to the long chilling time (I chilled them overnight out of necessity) and low, low baking heat.

The Pecan Fingers turned out to be absolutely, wonderfully addictive- oh my goodness, they are that good- with a light, shortbread-like buttery texture, fabulous honey undercurrent, nutty crunch that complements the crisp dough quite nicely, and a lingering sweetness from the double dustings of light, powdery confectioner's sugar. The dough is very easy to mix up, too- especially so if you have any kind of electric mixer.

The flame-coloured Le Creuset terrine mold my mom gave me a few years ago (I got lucky here- she was given two at her 1972 wedding to my father!), lined with a bit of waxed paper and clingfilm, is a perfectly-sized storage container for a few cookies short of one full batch- a convenient excuse for some taste testing, no?

I'm thrilled with another very successful recipe, and am very glad that, once again, Epicurious reviewers came through with reliable ratings and advice!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Christmas Cookies: Mint Chocolate Cookies

As you may have noticed, I often rely on recipes. Sometimes I tweak them until I feel like they've really become quite a bit more mine, if that makes sense, with grateful thanks to the person who provided the original recipe and a solid a jumping-off point. Other times, I end up adoring recipes as they are, perhaps with a few minor changes or additions, and I just want to tell everyone about this great! new! recipe! that I've found.

Not very original in the end, perhaps, but I'm finding that this blog has turned into a great way to share recipes with friends, as well as document my own experiments and newly discovered favourites for myself, too.

On that note, I discovered a few great Christmas cookie recipes this weekend. I printed out a pile of choices earlier in the week, and on Saturday morning L and I narrowed down the list to six recipes we wanted to try the most and headed out to buy extra whole wheat flour (it's always King Arthur flour in this house), molasses, confectioner's sugar and peppermint extract.

First, I made another batch of the Molasses Crinkles, since the first batch has been flying out of the cookie tin; then, I mixed up a batch of Mint Chocolate Cookies from the December 2000 volume of Bon Appétit.

The Mint Chocolate Cookies are soft and rich, and the light cocoa crumb and fabulous, clear peppermint note are reminiscent of Girl Scout cookie Thin Mints. I increased the peppermint extract to 3 teaspoons (1 tablespoon) and drizzled the cooled cookies with melted bittersweet chocolate, which took about 2 hours to cool and harden. They were a bit crumbly the day I baked them, but since then they have taken on a bit more brownie-like moisture. Some reviewers recommend cutting out 1/2 cup of the flour, and while the cookies are fabulous as is, I might give that a try with the next batch to see if they get even better!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

O Christmas Tree!

Every year, L and I have the same argument: he wants a short, small Christmas tree, and I want a gigantic, towering, fat one. As with all our arguments I'm in the right, of course (wink!)- after all, what's the point of having a tree if you're not going to go all out? I know there's the issue of the tree actually fitting through the front door, but in my mind, it's to-hell-with-logic! on this one.

Unfortunately for me, our apartment most decidedly isn't the same as a huge house well-suited to enormous Christmas trees, and I have to help carry the tree up the long flight of switchback stairs leading from our front door/small foyer to the rest of the apartment, so I let a little of L's common sense take over. This year, our compromise was to get a tall (8.5 foot), nicely tapered, relatively slender fir tree. I don't know why we haven't gone this route before (surely it can't be my own stubbornness!)- the best spot for the tree isn't terribly large circumference-wise, but we do have high 1920s ceilings, so this solution is a perfect fit.

We tried something new in the species realm, too, and went for a Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) instead of our usual Balsam or Douglas Fir. The branches feel very strong, and in daylight the needles have a lovely silvery-blue sheen. We were told that the Fraser Fir isn't as fragrant as other firs, but I don't know if I believe it- this tree gives off a gorgeously clean, piney fragrance that wafts all the way to the front door.

When we graduated college and moved in together, we didn't have any Christmas ornaments to speak of, and with the vast array of choices out there, I couldn't decide which new ones I'd be sure to like both now and down the road. Both of our families have boxes of sentimental-value ornaments that have been collected over the years, too, and somehow it seemed so fake to put a whole slew of shiny new decorations, bought solely because we couldn't think of anything else to use, on our tree.

I'm not sure where I got this idea, but in the middle of this internal debate, I decided I'd decorate the tree with origami cranes-both individually strung and in garlands- and perhaps slowly start collecting other ornaments for future use, too. Well, that was four Christmases ago, and I ended up adoring the cranes so much that I haven't given a moment's thought to buying anything else!

I'm not at 1,000 cranes yet, but I'm sure I'll get there soon at this rate- I'm now addicted to the small packages of lovely origami papers we find at a local Japanese housewares shop next door to our favourite- of 11 years, no less- lunch café, where it's always gyudon for me and yakidon (spicy beef bowl) for L. Actually, that reminds me that we haven't been there in a few weeks, and I'm ready to make a few more cranes before our holiday vacation sneaks up on us! What could be better than yummy takeout and a stack of fresh, crisp origami papers?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Christmas Cookies: Molasses Crinkles

For as long as I can remember, I've had a close fondness for the Czech Christmas cookies I grew up eating from the beginning of December through New Years Eve and into January. I'm sure it's partially due to the fabulous cookies themselves, and part warm and fuzzy attachment to familiar, comforting traditions.

Every year at the end of November, heavy balls of both pale and dark doughs, wrapped tightly in waxed paper, pile up in the fridge; during weekends, the sweet smells of beautiful, delicious, and always tiny cookies and confections waft through the house.

There are always many different flavours and cookie types to savour, though the yearly lineup, specific to each family and passed down through generations of Czech women, generally remains the same in each household. Of course, I've always particularly loved the sweets that appear on my family's cookie platters: confections like crumbly, cocoa-brown Bear Paws dotted with crunchy walnuts, moist Almond Baskets brimming with sticky, nutty filling, sugary Beehives piped full of fluffy pastry cream, potent rum-spiked Chocolate Balls, thin Fig Salami slices peppered with dried figs and glaceed fruits, and my absolute favourites: Linecke Kolačky, which are very much like Linzer cookies, filled with a thin, sparkling layer of raspberry jam and glistening with a shiny, egg-washed surface.

To me, Christmas is not the same without those Czech cookies. But, in the interest of expanding my own repertoire, I am always looking for outstanding additions to the usual lineup. This year, I turned to one of my favourite sources: Epicurious. I am always drawn to the collections of cookie recipes that Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines publish each winter, even though I know, in reality, that I will never find time to test all of the recipes I drool over each November.

I do, however, manage to narrow down my long, unmanageable dream list and try a few recipes, and last night I made my first test batch of Christmas cookies: Molasses Crinkles from the December 2004 volume of Gourmet. Because I, like my mom, absolutely love ginger in all forms, I took the advice of a few reviewers: I doubled the amount of ground ginger and added 1/2 cup of chopped crystallized ginger to the dough. I also baked the cookies for 9 minutes total- at 10 minutes, the cookies wavered between chewy and very crisp, depending on how soon I was able to get to the oven after the timer beeped.

Just as I'd hoped, these treats completely satisfy my ginger cookie cravings, and L and I were both really happy with how well the recipe turned out on the first try. I'll be surprised if this batch lasts more than a week! The cookies have a chewy center and crisp edges- the effect you typically get when you add butter and vegetable shortening to cookie dough- a great spiced ginger heat, and a delicious crackly sugar surface (L loves a crunchy sprinkling of sugar on baked goods, so I knew this aspect would really appeal to him). Molasses Crinkles are definitely going in my permanent Christmas recipe collection!