Monday, December 25, 2006

A holiday tradition

When I was growing up, every Christmas was the same. On Christmas Eve, we would go to Mass: I would sing in the children's choir, the nativity pageant would be performed with many little shepherds and angels, and Santa would even make an appearance, handing out candy canes afterwards. This was followed by a take-out dinner. Some years it was a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken with biscuits, mashed potatoes, and coleslaw; other years it was Chinese from a restaurant down the block. Once dinner was over, we would wait around impatiently for Dad to be ready to hand out gifts for opening, all the while eating handfuls of M&M's and foil-wrapped Kisses.

I love chocolate, and I'm well-aware of what good chocolate tastes like. Which means biting into a Hershey bar is no longer satisfying to the palate. It has a flat flavor, like something that's trying really hard to be chocolate but fails miserably. M&M's taste similarly — except when eaten at Christmas. Then they take on the flavor of nostalgia, of Christmases of long ago. I bought a bag of the red and green buttons and am eating them tonight, remembering a time when waiting for Christmas to come was almost unbearable and when I still believed in Santa Claus.

Merry Christmas, one and all.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The story of a chicken dinner

My fellow food-obsessed friend Karen once came up with a term for that sensation of delight when a truly wonderful bite of food makes contact with your taste buds: a "mouth orgasm." I had the great fortune to have several of those tonight, which was a just reward for the hard work that was put into making the meal.

I love Sunday roasts and traditional Thanksgiving dinners because of how much cooking is involved and how many dishes are produced for the end result — and therefore, how much eating you get to do when it's all said and done. Since I had a day off (finally!) and the Anthropologist is away for the weekend, I decided that today would be a great day to serve up a roast chicken with all the trimmings. For one. Seriously. Not only is my idea of a great way to relax one in which I spend the whole day in the kitchen, watching the Food Network no less, but I didn't even have anyone to share the meal with me. It was just me and the chicken.

I started by whipping up another pie for my self-imposed food challenge: pumpkin again, but this time it was flavored with a little caramel. I'll save the details for a different post, since my adventures in pie deserve a discussion all their own.

I then made a savory bread pudding with mushrooms and parmesan cheese, which was an intriguing twist on the usual stuffing. If the Anthropolgist had been here, this would also have served as the "vegetarian option." I took a lovely baguette from Kelly's Bakery and let it get stale over a couple of days. Then I cut the bread into cubes and toasted them with garlic and thyme. To this, I added sauteed mushrooms, onion, and celery, as well as parsley. Top with a custard of eggs and cream, and bake. The problem? When I originally tried to put the bread and veggies into my smaller casserole dish, they didn't quite fit, so I opted for the 9-inch by 13-inch pan. But using the larger dish meant that the custard didn't completely cover all the bread, so half of the pudding wasn't pudding at all but really crunchy stuffing. I tried moistening it with a little vegetable broth, which helped a little, but I figured since one bread cube taken from the top tasted fine, I should stop messing with it.

Next was a sweet potato casserole. Let me tell you: I haven't eaten much sweet potato casserole before. Actually, last Thanksgiving, when I had lunch with L-Train and tried her mom's, was the first time I'd ever been presented with the opportunity. My mom makes sweet potatoes baked in Old Crow whiskey and brown sugar, and I typically just bake mine whole, split it open, and sprinkle a little sugar and spice on top. So when I saw the recipe in Cooking Light, I was determined to give it a try, especially since I have a half a bag of miniature marshmallows in the cupboard that really want to be eaten. The potatoes are simmered, then beaten with brown sugar, whole milk, egg, and vanilla, then topped with the aforementioned marshmallows and a mixture of more brown sugar, flour, and butter. The casserole came out of the oven with the topping all puffy and browned, like campfire marshmallows. Perfect.

Finally, there was the chicken. I haven't roasted a whole chicken in ages. First, it was because I lived alone and felt that an entire bird would be much too much. Then I moved in with the Anthropologist — but same problem, though, since he doesn't eat meat. I figure, though, that I can get a lot of use out of this four-and-a-half pound fowl. I'll definitely make chicken soup (this is certainly the season for it, what with the flu going around), plus I'll make up for not having enough leftover turkey at Thanksgiving by making my favorite post-Turkey Day sandwiches — and maybe even Sher's enchiladas.

Following a turkey recipe in Bon Appetit, as well as turning to the Naked Chef for inspiration, I put thyme under the breast skin and rubbed oil over the whole thing. Then I stuffed the cavity with celery, carrots, and onion. Into the pan went more of those veggies, as well as the giblets and some broth. (An aside: I was very disappointed that the giblet packet only contained the neck and liver. Where did this chicken's heart and gizzard go? I once read a recipe that instucted the cook to toss out the giblets, which saddended me greatly. Don't people know how delicious chicken innards are? Well, I'm not a big fan of the neck, honestly, but I love those other little blobby masses of flesh. Especially the chicken liver. I'm glad that was at least there. And come on, if you're not going to eat it, at least use it to make stock. What a waste of good chicken parts if you just put it in the trash!)

After it had roasted for an hour, I used the pan drippings to make a gravy seasoned with thyme and allspice. Then I hacked that chicken to pieces — which is easy, provided I can find the joints without trouble. After carving off the limbs and the breast meat, I actually had to put some of the bird back into the oven because the limb juices were still pink. But the white meat was tender and juicy.

So onto my plate went the chicken with some gravy, the bread pudding, the casserole, and some cranberry sauce I had made. The bread pudding was so good, especially the custard parts, that I wanted to do a little happy dance to express the joy I felt in eating it. I liked the richness from the cream and the flavor of the portabellos that permeated throughout. I had similar feelings about the sweet potatoes. They had just the right amount of sweetness, and I liked the addition of the vanilla, which I had been wary about when making it. The chewy stickiness of the marshmellow topping was quite nice as well. The chicken had a lovely crisp skin, studded with thyme leaves, and was excellent when accompanied by both gravy and cranberries.

I ate so much, I didn't even have room to taste my pie. And there are so many leftovers — I hope the Anthropologist comes home hungry tomorrow night!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A heavenly dessert

When I was about ten or so, I took a cooking class at the local rec center. Being that it was for children, it covered the simplest of recipes. I don't remember what all we were taught in the few weeks the class was offered, except for the complete meal that was a culmination of all that we'd learned. We made spaghetti with tomato sauce and a dessert called Pudding in a Cloud. This ridiculously easy-to-make dish was comprised of a bowl of Cool Whip topped with a generous helping of Jello chocolate pudding. It took little effort to open a container of non-dairy topping and mix together milk and a sweetened brown powder.

Sixteen years later, I may be a "grown-up," but I still love a simple but tasty dessert. I can't, however, bring myself to use Cool Whip when I know the true joys of real whipped cream, and I'm more likely to stock baking chocolate in my cupboards over instant pudding mix. Honestly, though, making pudding and whipped cream from scratch doesn't take much more effort than using the processed stuff — and you get a richer, more "adult" flavor. Try it. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Pudding in a Cloud
(pudding recipe adapted from Dad's Own Cookbook)
serves 2

1/2 c sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 tsp salt
1 c whole milk
2 oz semi-sweet baking chocolate, chopped
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

2/3 c heavy whipping cream
2 tbsp sugar

Combine sugar through salt in a small bowl. Heat milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until steaming; remove from heat. Slowly whisk in dry ingredients, then add chocolate and vanilla, stirring until melted. Return to heat until it just begins to boil, stirring constantly. Cool, then refrigerate at least 40 minutes and up to 2 days. (Place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding if you don't like a skin.)

Just before serving, combine cream and sugar in a cool metal bowl, then whip until soft peaks form. Divide into two bowls, then divide pudding on top of the "clouds."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Celebrating Christmas with the Swedes

Last Saturday, I drove up to San Francisco to attend the Swedish Christmas Fair, held at St. Mary's Cathedral. The flyer promised a St. Lucia pageant and crafts for sale, as well as open-faced sandwiches, glögg (mulled wine), and Swedish waffles. I was intrigued — and open to any opportunity to learn more about the food and traditions of other cultures.

L-Train, who is Swedish on her mom's side, and I, who is not at all scandinavian, arrived right around lunchtime and found a long line in the cafeteria. There were many options for the open-faced sandwiches: shrimp and hard-boiled egg, anchovy and hard-boiled egg, salmon, cheese, and meatballs with lingonberry jam. The shrimp looked good — so good, in fact, that it was what most people were ordering, and therefore, it was gone by the time we reached the table at the front of the line. We both opted for salmon instead. I could have gone the meatball route, but I've had the meatballs at IKEA and wanted a different culinary experience.

The salmon sandwiches were spread with a thin layer of butter, then topped with lettuce, smoked salmon, and thin slice each of lemon and cucumber. I had been excited about the fact that this particular sandwich was served on a dark brown bread — until I noticed that they must have run out and that they had assembled mine with just regular old wheat bread. L-Train commented on the butter coating, saying that her grandmother (or was it her mother?) would put butter on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (My father later confirmed this apparently European style of dressing a sandwich when he told me that his mother, who was the daughter of German immigrants, used to make butter and jelly sandwiches.)

I also decided to get what they called a "Christmas soda": a cola-like drink called Julmust. When asked what it tasted like, I couldn't describe it. It tasted medicinal, like a spiced cough syrup. L-Train had a similar inability to describe its taste. Greacian, who also joined us, couldn't put a name to it either. Whatever it was, the flavor came from an "aroma" containing hops and barley, as well as "spices."

It was hard to ignore the huge sign announcing the presence of waffles, so to make up for the lack of shrimp, we indulged ourselves. The waffles were thin, crisp, and wonderfully light and buttery. Each set of five hearts was topped with real whipped cream and a dollop of strawberry Smuckers. It was surprising how something so simple could be so good. Later, I picked up a jar of cloudberry jam, which I'd never heard of before, much less tasted — but I imagine it would taste very good on homemade waffles or even pancakes. I even have a carton of cream waiting to be whipped into shape. (I also got an adorable children's book called Boo and Baa Go to Sea, about an eventful trip to go picnicking on an island, and an ornament of a very little girl wearing a very large stocking cap that was so cute I couldn't resist.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A little bit of love

It's the Anthropologist's birthday today, so last night, I whipped up one of his favorite cakes: carrot cake. Half the batter became a dozen cupcakes, complete with festive wrappers, while the other half became an 8x8 sheet cake. Since that is by far too much cake for two people to really eat (I mean, we could, but we shouldn't), I'm going to send the cupcakes with him to his poker game tonight, for his buddies to enjoy.

I used two different recipes to create this moist, spiced cake. I based the cake mostly on the recipe in Cooking for the Clueless, with some inspiration from The Joy of Cooking. I also tweaked it a bit based on what I did (or didn't have) on hand.

Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting

2 c flour
2 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1-3/4 c sugar
1 c vegetable oil
3 eggs
2 cups grated carrots (about 3 large)
1 c (or one small can) crushed pineapple, well drained

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Prepare the pan(s) you will use by lining them either with muffin cups or waxed paper. Or just grease them really well.

Whisk dry ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine sugar, oil, and eggs, beating until smooth. Add the flour mixture, stir, then add carrots and pineapple. (Note: You can also add 1/2 c chopped walnuts and 1 c golden raisins, but since I don't like either one, I didn't use them.) Pour into pans, then bake as such:
• Cupcake tins: 20 minutes
• 8x8 pans: 25 minutes
• 9x13 pan: 40 minutes,
or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Remove cake from pan and let cool thoroughly before frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting

6 oz cream cheese, softened
2 tbsp butter, softened
1-1/2 tsp vanilla
2 c powdered sugar, sifted

Using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla together. Add sugar in thirds until it reaches the desired consistency. Frost away!