My Motto

May the muffin rise to greet you, may your friends be always at your door, and until we meet again, warm a single-malt in the palm of your hand and make something homemade for someone you love.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Quick Christmas Braid

"Christmas waves a magic wand over this world and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful."
~Norman Vincent Peale
This is a double recipe, shaped slightly differently than Nana's recipe indicates

A few posts back I started poking around in my Great Grandmother Hook's recipe box.
This recipe card caught my eye.
Great Grandmother Hook is the little girl on the right, circa 1894

As far back as I can remember, we used to go to my grandmother's house at 11 a.m. on a Christmas morn.
Me and Nana, Christmas '83, her last one
This Christmas braid, made by Nana Hook, was always there.  It was always braided into a ring and decorated with red and green cherries and pecan halves.  We would start the festivities with a slice and a teacup of eggnog.  I was shocked and sort of pleased to see that it actually starts with frozen bread dough.  That was rather progressive for back then, but Nana would have been in her eighties and early nineties, so I bet that convenience made all the difference.  You never would have guessed.  You need to let the frozen dough thaw either overnight or for 4 hours in a warm spot in your house.  I wouldn't call it quick, but I sure would call it easy!  
Viola (Nana) Hook 1927
The recipe called for a 1 pound piece of frozen bread dough to be thawed thoroughly, rolled out 12 inches square, cut into 3 strips, spread with filling, dough sealed over filling, then braided.  I doubled the recipe and found it MUCH easier to roll the dough into a 13x9 in rectangle, spread with filling, make one big roll, seal in a ring and then cut with scissors, as shown here.  I'll give you the recipe as she wrote it.  It makes a small braid, which you can also shape into a ring.  It's a pretty easy recipe for a Christmas tradition that will leave an impression.  It sure did for me!

Quick Christmas Braid (or Wreath)
Viola Hook 1892-1984

One 1-pound loaf of frozen bread dough
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1 cup sifted confectioner's sugar
4 or 5 tablespoons milk
red sugar
pecan halves and maraschino cherry halves for decoration

Thaw dough thoroughly [in an oiled bowl, covered with plastic wrap, either overnight or for 4 hours].  Roll

 12 inches square.  Cut into 3 equal strips.  Spread butter down center of each strip.  Combine brown sugar, cinnamon and chopped pecans.  Sprinkle this mixture over butter down center of each strip.  Bring dough around filling and seal edges to form 3 ropes.  Place on a greased cookie sheet and loosely braid.  [Either leave as a strip, or shape into a ring; your choice]  Let rise until double in bulk, about 30 minutes.
Bake at 375 degrees for 30 - 35 minutes.  Cover loosely with foil during last few minutes to prevent over-browning, if necessary.  Cool completely.

Combine confectioner's sugar and milk, adding milk a little at a time until icing is the right consistency to drizzle.  Drizzle icing over cooled braid.  Decorate with pecan and cherry halves and sprinkle with red sugar.  Enjoy!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Horseradish Vinaigrette

"The beet is the most intense of the vegetables.  The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fever of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent, not of passion.  Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity.  Beets are deadly serious."
~Tom Robbins

I love Thanksgiving, don't get me wrong...but after a week of turkey, turkey leftovers and an enormous vat of turkey soup, the Mister and I were ready for some bold flavors.  This salad fit the bill perfectly.  We had it alone on a bed of chopped romaine (in lieu of arugula) as a light supper, but it would make a nice accompaniment to a roast beef dinner.  That the vegetables can be roasted hours ahead of time makes it a wonderful side dish during the holidays when oven space is at a premium.  We were crazy for this, but had a disagreement regarding the addition of pears.  The Mister loved them, but I thought I may have preferred the dish solidly savory.  You can decide for yourself.  
This recipe is inspired by one that appeared in Southern Living a year ago.  That one used sweet potatoes, parsnips and beets.  My version uses beets, turnip, carrot and cipollini onions, along with chopped pears, chopped smoked almonds and Gorgonzola cheese.  Their horseradish vinaigrette was brilliant though, and my only tampering was to add a teaspoon of honey. 
If you are unused to handling fresh beets, here is a tip.  You should prepare them separately and roast them on their own baking sheet.  You may want to wear dish-washing gloves while you peel them and chop them, and keep them away from the other vegetables or they will bleed all over everything and make all a homogeneous red, which takes away from the pleasing colorful look of the dish.  
The other vegetables can all be roasted together on a second baking sheet.  Set them aside at room temperature for up to 3 hours and assemble the right before serving.  We really loved this dish.  Even though I made it last week, we are ready to have it again.  It is a symphony of flavors that all make sense together (with or without the pears) and make your palate sing!  

Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Horseradish Vinaigrette
Serves 2-3 as a main dish salad, or 6-8 as a side dish

1 medium turnip (about 1 pound) peeled and chopped into bite-size cubes
3 large carrots (about 3/4 pound) sliced into 1/2 pieces.  If they are very big, slice them in half.
3 or 4 large fresh beets, peeled and chopped into bite-size cubes
12 - 15 small cipollini onions, peeled
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 chopped pear
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice 
1/3 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
1/3 cup smoked toasted almonds, roughly chopped
1 small bag of arugula, mescalin greens or 1 head of romaine, chopped
Horseradish Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Line 2 baking sheets with aluminum foil.  Peel and chop the beets, then toss in a bowl with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, half the salt and half the pepper.  Spread on one of the baking sheets.  Clean surfaces and bowl, then toss the remaining vegetables in the bowl with the remainder of the olive oil, salt and pepper.  Spread on the second baking sheet.  Place both in the oven and bake for 50 minutes, rotating the trays halfway through roasting time.  Test one of the larger chunks to make sure the vegetables are tender before you remove them.  Set aside and let cool completely and for up to 3 hours.

Assemble salad:
Right before serving, slice or chop unpeeled, cored pear as desired.  Toss with lemon juice.
Place vegetables in a large bowl, add pears.  Drizzle with desired amount of dressing and toss carefully.  To serve family style, spread chilled greens in the bottom of a large serving platter or shallow bowl.  Pile vegetables (with pear) on top in a mound.  Sprinkle with Gorgonzola and then nuts.  Serve at room temperature immediately with any additional dressing.

Horseradish Vinaigrette

1/2 cup bottled olive oil and vinegar dressing
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon honey

Whisk together all ingredients.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pistachio Cookies

"You must crack the nuts before you can eat the kernel"
~Irish Proverb
I'm excited to share these quick and delicious treats with you!  For the return you get on these cookies in the form of joyous appreciation, their ease of preparation is truly criminal.  From start to finish you can have the entire batch baked and cleaned up in half an hour.  Not kidding.  But when your family and friends taste them and then proceed to inhale them, you may want to double your efforts so you actually have some left for your Christmas cookie tray!

About 6 years ago, in a bout of crazed organization, I decided to type up my mess of a lifetime of collected recipe cards and clippings into a binder.  But last year, when I wanted to make these cookies, I couldn't find the recipe.  Probably because it was under B, for Best Ever, instead of P for Pistachio.  So much for being organized :-/.  Unfortunately, I've had this recipe so long I have no recollection of where it originated.  Over the years, a little tweaking has improved them with the addition of toasted nuts, green food color and almond extract.  Soft and chewy with that adored pistachio ice cream flavor, they are sure to please.  I hope you get a chance to try them.  And if you have an extra minute or two, check out this virtual cookie swap at The Farmer's Wife:

Best Ever Pistachio Cookies
Makes about 30 cookies

1 box white cake mix
1 box instant pistachio pudding mix
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup nuts (almond or pistachio), toasted and roughly chopped 
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
6 drops green food coloring.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Place first four ingredients into a large bowl.  In a small bowl, stir together the remaining ingredients. Pour contents of the small bowl into the large bowl and stir together until combined. Batter will be stiff.  Drop tablespoons size dollops of dough onto an ungreased cookie sheet about 1 1/2 inches apart.  Bake for 11-12 minutes, until lightly browned.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fennel Stuffed Pork Loin

"All great change in America begins at the dinner table."
~Ronald Reagan

Talk about food to get excited about.  This delicious dinner first ended up on our table several years ago after I'd been inspired by an episode of The Barefoot Contessa.  It is a fabulous roast that looks more complicated than it actually is.  I tweaked it a tiny bit and added a rub on the pork and some gravy that we all decided is essential.   Even though this is just a regular weekday and no company was expected, we noshed on it tonight.  The Mister was in hog heaven...get it?...heh  heh.  All the ingredients were inexpensive (the loin only cost $6.00), and in fifteen minutes I had the stuffing made and the pork loin butterflied, stuffed and trussed.  Generally, I would serve this on a holiday, or as a Sunday dinner, but I thought I'd toss it out there in case any of you were looking for holiday dinner ideas.  The nice thing about it is, any leftovers can be chopped up and tossed in a slow cooker with some cream of celery soup and a splash of sherry.  We liked that as much as the original dinner! 

Fennel Stuffed Pork Loin
serves 6
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Family Style, 2006

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups sliced onion
2 cups sliced fennel (1 large bulb)
salt and pepper
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves (I used 1/2 teaspoon dried)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon white wine
1 small can chicken broth (about 1 1/2 to 2 cups)
1/3 cup flour
3 cups fresh bread crumbs
1 (3-1/2 to 4 pound) loin of pork, butterflied

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

For the stuffing, heat olive oil and butter in a large skillet.  Add the onions and fennel with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.  Cook over low to medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring constantly, until the onions and fennel are tender and lightly browned.  Add the garlic and thyme and cook for 1 more minute.  Add the white wine and bread crumbs.  Cool slightly.
Butterfly the roast.  Using a very sharp knife, with the loin lengthwise, make a cut just less than 1/3 of the way down and cut straight across to within about an inch of slicing straight through.  Then cut down about an inch and back the opposite way.  You can open the roast as you go.
Spread the stuffing evenly over the pork and roll up lengthwise, ending with the fat on the top of the roll.  
Tie with kitchen string.
Rub roast with olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. [I make a rub with 1 teaspoon each of salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder and rub the entire roast with this.]
Place in a roasting pan and roast for 30 minutes.  Lower heat to 350 degrees F and roast for another 30-35 minutes [add 1/2 cup white wine and can of chicken broth to roasting pan when there is 20 minutes left of cooking time], until the interior of the pork is 137 degrees F on a meat thermometer (if the thermometer hits stuffing rather than pork, it will register a higher temperature, so test the meat in several places.) Remove from the oven, transfer roast to carving board and cover tightly with aluminum foil.  allow to rest for 15 minutes.  In the meantime, make the gravy.  Place roasting pan (unless it is ceramic) on range over med-high heat.  Bring drippings to a boil and boil, scraping pan with spatula.  Strain drippings if needed.  In a small bowl, whisk flour with 3/4 cup ice cold water.  Slowly add to pan drippings (on med-high), adding slowly and whisking constantly until gravy is the desired thickness.  Season with salt and pepper.  Remove the strings from roast, slice thickly, and serve.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Candy Cane Cookies, Our Very First Tradition

"Once in a young lifetime one should be allowed to have as much sweetness as one can possibly want and hold."
~Judith Olney

Today I was invited to participate in a virtual cookie exhange by the lovely Di, of Di's kitchen notebook.  I'm honored to be included and will share my most special Christmas cookie for the event!
Back in the Paleolithic age, when I was first married, my sister-in-law gave me a Christmas Keepsake book that contained this recipe.  I made the cookies that year, we loved them and they became the very first Christmas tradition all our own.  These were the days when I was Little Miss Organization, and would make all the Christmas cookies early, when I had time, and stick them in the upright freezer downstairs.  More than a few times, I caught the Mister coming up the stairs with one or two of these cookies sticking out of his shirt pocket.  He liked them so much he was willing to eat them frozen...and as the kids grew up, they followed suit.  Go figure.  
They can be a bit of a pain to make, rolling out all those little logs of dough to put together and shape.  Make sure your dough is chilled, because it can get sticky, and try to recruit someone to help you.  It is best to roll them out on cold granite or marble, but you can do it on a very lightly floured cutting board, if need be.  To crush the candy canes, I just put the wrapped canes in a Ziploc bag and smash them with a hammer.  The plastic wrapper lifts away in one piece, leaving all the glistening crushed candy.  It only takes 30 seconds.  Have this done and at the ready so you can sprinkle the cookies with it immediately after removing them from the oven.  They need to be hot so the candy will stick.  The problem with these cookies is they taste so darn good!  Just like almond shortbread.  Everyone wants to snarf them down, but I'm willing to do the work but once a year!  Hope I haven't scared you away from them, they really are delicious, festive and worth it!
Check out the virtual cookie swap at The Farmer's Wife:

Candy Cane Cookies
Makes 15-18 cookies

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 vegetable shortening, at room temperature
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon red food coloring 
3 standard size candy canes, crushed

Blend butter and shortening; beat in confectioner's sugar, egg and flavorings.  Sift flour with salt;  stir into creamed mixture.  Divide dough in half.  Add red food coloring to one half.  Wrap both half in plastic wrap and chill at least 45 minutes.  Roll 2-teaspoon size pieces of dough into logs about 6 inches long. Place a white strip and a red strip side by side, press together lightly and twist like a rope.  Place on ungreased cookie sheet, curving the top to resemble a candy cane.  Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 10-11 minutes until lightly browned.  Remove cookies from oven and immediately sprinkle hot cookies with crushed candy canes.  Let cool 5 minutes, then very carefully remove from cookie sheet to cooling rack.  

Store in an airtight container.  Cookies freeze well.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Butterscotch Haystacks, Ala My Great Grandmother

"Grandmother - A wonderful mother with lots of practice."
When I was a child, there were a few things you could count on at my grandmother's house for Christmas.  There was always ribbon candy and fudge, laughter, warmth, and haystacks.  My great-grandmother, Viola Hook (aka Nana) always made haystacks.  
The child is my grandmother,  the woman, my great-grandmother, Viola Hook.
Nana made haystacks the old fashioned way.  No peanut butter or marshmallows; just butterscotch, peanuts and chow mein noodles.  I grew up on them, so it's the only way I like them.  For us, they were always a part of the Christmas cookie tray, even though they are really more of a candy.  In all my years, I've never seen them anywhere else, although when googled, recipes and variations abounded, and for the first time that I've ever noticed, there was a recipe for them on the back of the bag of butterscotch morsels.  I've been making them for 30 years and never needed a recipe since they are so incredibly easy, but out of curiosity, I got out Nana's old file box of recipes and poked through it.
Apparently she never needed to write it down either, but there were some curiosities in there worth trying soon.  My husband never had them til he met me, but he LOVES them.  In fact, when we were first married, for years I would make a tin of them and give them to him for Christmas and he'd eat the whole thing.  They are funny looking little things, yet addictingly good!  Once the ingredients are stirred together, it is fun for kids to get involved and help shape them and drop them on the wax paper.  They're pretty fool-proof and are already a bit goofy-looking, so you can't go wrong!

I am the last American without a microwave, so I'll give you the old-school recipe (the way I make them), followed by a microwave method.

Nana Hook's Haystacks
makes 18-24 

One 11 ounce bag Nestle Butterscotch Morsels
One 8.5 ounce can Chow Mein Noodles (I use LaChoy brand). 
1/2 cup lightly salted peanuts (I used the Planter's Sea Salt ones)

Stove-top method:
Line a cookie sheet with waxed paper.  Place a medium saucepan half filled with water on the stove on medium high.  Bring to a low simmer.  Turn down heat a little and place a heat-proof bowl on top of saucepan (or use a double-boiler).  Make sure the bowl is completely dry and that no water gets in it (or the candy will seize).  Pour morsels in the bowl.  Leave it uncovered.  When most of the morsels are shiny, stir just until melted.  Remove from heat and immediately stir in the chow mein noodles and peanuts.  Place small blobs of the mixture on the cookie sheet lined with wax paper.  Allow to cool completely and place in cookie tins.  Store in a cool dry place, or the refrigerator.

Microwave method:
Microwave morsels in a large, uncovered, microwave-safe bowl on medium-high (70%) power for 1 minute; stir.  If necessary, microwave at additional 10 second intervals, just until melted.  Stir in chow mein noodles and peanuts and toss until all ingredients are coated.  Drop by rounded tablespoons onto prepared cookie sheets. Cool completely and store in airtight containers in the refrigerator.