Thursday, December 31, 2009


Well, I made it. But just barely. The challenge for this month's Daring Bakers' was a gingerbread house, made completely from scratch. I used the template and recipes from Martha Stewart’s website for the snow swept gingerbread cottage. I would love to say that I enjoyed every moment of the process, but frankly I cannot. To be able to share that while I was mixing the spicy ginger dough, the lovely sound of classical Christmas music flowed through my ever peaceful home. To be able to share that while the perfectly formed gingerbread framework was cooling on their racks the scent of cinnamon filled the kitchen. And then the joys of seeing it all come together as each piece fit seamlessly, just as I had planned.

Yeah right.

It was more like make the dough one day. Roll out the dough or at least most of it over the next few days when it fit in my schedule. Bake off the pieces only to realize that the website never gave a template or dimensions for the roof. So pull out the ruler and calculator and roll out more dough (thankfully I made extra). More days go by as the finished pieces await their construction. Make the caramel syrup for gluing it together (twice) only to get one section glued before the whole mass turned to rock hard sugar crystals. Another day, make royal icing instead for gluing, which worked much better.

This type of thing for me ranks right up there with knitting (no offense to you knitter's out there) but I just don't have the patience for fine detail work. Plus the fact that I'm a control freak with a type A personality makes for a bad combination. Maybe this is something that needs to be put on my “things to work on in 2010” list.

Hopefully my ranting does not detour you from trying one of these next year. I’m pretty sure it is a “user error” type of situation.

On another note, I am looking forward to getting back to normal baking.

Happy New Years!

Monday, December 14, 2009

remembering Grandma

Having been raised by my grandparents I definitely heard my share of stories from their childhood going through the great depression and how difficult it was for them. I believe it went something like this… “When I was your age I had to walk twenty-five miles to school every morning uphill both ways through year 'round blizzards carrying my younger siblings on my back to a one-room schoolhouse where I maintained a straight-A average despite having a full-time after-school job at the local textile mill where I worked for 35 cents an hour just to help keep the family from starving to death, all the while never complaining and being thankful for having a roof over my head and shoes on my feet.” It was tedious to say the least.

Having children of my own now I have been known to go on a similar fatiguing diatribe on being thankful, working hard, etc. watching as their eyes begin to glaze over as I droned on. No doubt when they have children of their own it will probably continue.

My Grandparents have since both passed away, but one thing in particular that comes to mind every Christmas time is my Grandmother sharing with me a wonderful Christmas morning memory of hers. It seems that when she was young, every Christmas she would receive in her stocking (an actual sock of her own that she wore) a doll, a piece of ‘stick candy’ as she called it and an orange. She said that besides the doll, the orange was her favorite. She would smile all the while sharing this with me, with a kind of far off look in her eyes. Remembering the weight of it, the smell of it, waiting for moment when she would sit down and begin to unwrap the soft and fleshy gift and savor each delicious segment.

It is hard to imagine in our day and age to cherish something as common as an orange. We have so many varieties at our fingertips, the abundant Navel orange, the Valencia, one of the sweetest for juicing, the Satsuma the popular Christmas time variety and even the unique blood orange that has streaks of red in the fruit, with juice that is often a dark burgundy color.

As I was remembering Grandma this year, I decided that in her memory I would bring the orange back as a Christmas time gift. But instead of giving the whole fruit, I would use the peel and elevate it to another level. Candied peel. The beautiful crystallized citrus peel is a wonderful addition to a cake recipe, sweet bread such as a Panettone, or even chopped and sprinkled over vanilla ice cream. To make it even more decadent, dip one end in dark chocolate and serve as a simple after dinner treat with coffee.

So maybe this year you can start your own tradition of giving a charmingly old-fashioned holiday delicacy…candied citrus peel.


Candied Citrus Peel
adpated from Martha Stewart Living 2007

8 oranges
6 cups sugar, plus more for rolling

Cut end off fruit, and halve fruit lengthwise. Insert the tip of a small paring knife carefully between fruit and pith about ½ inch deep and cut, following the shape of the fruit and keeping skin in one piece. Turn fruit on other end and repeat.

Using your fingers, gently pull the peel away. Reserve fruit for another use.

Place citrus peel in a 6-quart pot; fill with enough cold water to cover (about 3 quarts). Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat; simmer 20 minutes. Drain. Soak peel in cold water until cool enough to handle, about 5 minutes.

Using a melon baler, scrape the soft white pith from the peel, being careful not to tear or cut into the skin.

Slice each piece of peel lengthwise into thin strips ¼ to ½ wide.

Stir together sugar and 3 cups water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved, about 8 minutes. Add strips and reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until strips are translucent and syrup thickens, about 40 minutes. Let strips cool completely in syrup for 3 hours (or overnight). Strips can be refrigerated in syrup in an airtight container up to 3 weeks.

For sugaring peel, remove strips with a slotted spoon. Using your fingers, wipe off excess syrup, and roll strips in sugar. Let dry on wire racks.

Place strips in airtight container for extended storage, or stack in small boxes embellished with yellow and orange ribbons to provide a hint of what’s inside each carefully presented package.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

a reduction

If you’ve ever wondered what to do with that leftover bottle of red wine that is just a bit past drinkable, I have the perfect solution: a reduction.

A reduction is a wonderful way to intensify the flavors of the something, (in this case wine) as well as giving it a slightly jam-like consistency. Most red wine reductions I have seen use a traditional stock base. This one doesn't and is much simpler to make. Also, surprisingly delicious even when made with wine that is just past it’s prime.

Any red wine would make a nice reduction and can be used in many different ways. In a savory application it could be served with roasted lamb, grilled radicchio, cedar plank salmon, or braised fennel with blue cheese. On the sweeter side drizzle some over a little pound cake and dried fruits or even with poached pears and toasted walnuts would be tasty.

Any way you choose to serve it you can’t go wrong. And even better it stays good in your refrigerator for at least a month or more (if it lasts that long).


Red Wine Reduction

2 cups red wine (any red you have leftover, even port is delicious)
½ cup superfine sugar
1 ½ tsp. whole black pepper
Optional additions could be: a few mint leaves torn, a small sprig of rosemary, or some chopped dried figs

Bring all ingredients in a 2 quart saucepan over moderately low heat. Stir until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and ignite. Let flame die down, and simmer over moderately low heat until thickened and reduced to ½ cup, about 15 minutes. Strain.

Makes ½ cup

F is for fennel

Fennel is among the most versatile of vegetables: it’s good whether eaten raw in salads, or cooked in any number of ways. I enjoy it roasted with other root vegetables as a side dish, or used as an aromatic vegetable, often instead of celery in mirepoix (diced carrots, onion and celery) and other preparations. The flavor of the pale white bulb is reminiscent of anise or licorice. The fibrous green stalks with feathery leaves can be added to stocks for an added depth of flavor. The dark green feathery fronds are a nice touch as a flavorful garnish.

To prepare fennel, trim away the darker fibrous stalk and bottom end, and remove any outer layers that are tough or blemished. Fennel should be cut close to the time it is needed, as it will oxidize and brown over time. Many recipes ask you to remove the core, but I don’t find it necessary; I like the taste of the core and find it quite tender.

One way recently I have enjoyed fennel is by braising it some water with splash of white wine. I serve it with a cabernet wine reduction and a few crumbles of blue cheese. It is a nice light lunch or along side pork roast for dinner.


Braised Fennel
Loosely adapted from Alice Waters The Art of Simple Food

2 or3 fennel bulbs
¼ cup white wine (optional)
4 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
½ tsp. fennel seeds, crushed
Olive oil
Fennel tops

Trim away the root end, cut of the leafy tops and fibrous stalk, peel away any bruised outer layers. Cut each bulb in half and then into three or four wedges. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil and brown the fennel wedges lightly, and then add 2 cups of water with the wine, thyme, bay leaf and fennel seeds. Bring to a boil, and then turn down to a simmer. Continue cooking, turning every once in a while until tender, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

christmas cake

Okay, I admit it even though I’m calling it a Christmas Cake … it's a fruitcake. And yes I have heard all the jokes told about the poor thing and the uses it should have instead of having a prominent place of honor at the end of the Christmas feast. I believe the list goes something like this:

Use as a doorstop
Use as a paper weight
Use as a boat anchor
Use as bricks in fireplace
Build a house with them
Use it to hold up your Christmas tree
Give it to the cat for a scratching post
Put it in the back yard to feed the birds and squirrels
Hold up your car when changing tires
Use as a replacement for a Dura flame log
Replaces free weights when you work out

Well, I am hoping to change all that…especially since I found this recipe in Nigel Slater’s cookbook Kitchen Diaries.  I was so excited to give it a whirl.  My family doesn’t share in my exuberance yet, but once they taste it I’m sure it will win them over. After all Nigel says in his cookbook that he is “extraordinarily fond” of making Christmas cake and looks forward to it for weeks. Apparently there is nothing as lovely as the heavenly fruity cakey aroma coming from the oven. The sweet tart flavor of the Turkish apricots, to the plump black figs, moist and sweet prunes, mouth watering dates, along with the nutty crunch of the hazelnuts; how can we resist? Then if that is not enough the recipe calls for “feeding” the cake with brandy every week until Christmas Day, so that it is moist and delicious. Before serving the cake, it is covered in Marzipan and then if you desire to “gild the lily” top it off with a beautiful snowdrift of frosting made from unrefined powered sugar and egg whites laced with a touch of lemon juice. He said that this recipe is requested from him more than any other recipe. So it seemed like something I should definitely give some consideration too.

Feel free to change up the dried fruit and nut combo as you like. I actually didn’t add the glacé cherries or the currants and substituted dates instead. And for the brandy, I chose to use Belle de Brillet. It is one of France’s classic and great liqueurs, and is the original blend of Brillet Cognac with the essence of pears. The perfectly matured pears are picked at their peak of ripeness, macerated, and then blended with Fine Brillet Cognac. About twenty pounds of pears for each bottle!

So if you dare, give this cake a try. But just between you and me, you might just want to refer to it as “Christmas Cake”.



Christmas Cake
from Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater

Butter- ½ lb. plus 2 tbsp
Light brown sugar ½ cup plus 2 tbsp
Dark brown sugar ½ cup plus 2 tbsp
Dried fruits-prunes, apricots, figs, candied peel, glacé cherries (I used dates instead of cherries)
4 ½ cups total
3 large free range eggs
Ground almonds ½ cup
Shelled hazelnuts 2/3 cup
Raisins, currants, cranberries, 2 1/3 cups in total
Brandy- 4 tbsp. plus extra to feed the cake
The zest and juice of an orange
The zest of a lemon
Baking powder ¾ tsp
All purpose flour 2 ½ cups

You will need a deep 8 in. cake pan with a removable base, fully lined with a double layer of lightly buttered baking parchment which should come at least 2 in about the top of the tin

Set the oven to 325°F. Beat the butter and sugars till light and fluffy. Don’t forget to push the mixture down the sides of the bowl from time to time with a spatula

While the butter and sugars are beating to a cappuccino-colored fluff, cut the dried fruits into small pieces, removing the hard stalks from the figs. Add the eggs to the mixture one a time-it will curdle but don’t worry-then slowly mix in the ground almonds, hazelnuts all the dried fruit, the brandy and the citrus zest and juice. Now mix the baking powder and flour together and fold them lightly into the mix. Scrape the mixture into the prepared pan, smoothing the top gently, and put it in the oven. Leave it for an hour, then, without opening the oven door, turn the heat down to 300°F and continue cooking for one and half hours.

Check whether the cake is done by inserting a skewer into the center. It should come out with just a few crumbs attached but no trace of raw cake mixture. Take the cake out of the oven and leave to cool before removing it from the pan.

Fee the cake by pouring brandy into it every week until Christmas. Pierce the cake with a skewer and drizzle in some brandy. Cover tightly and leave in a cake pan till needed. It will keep for several weeks.

Almond paste
To cover a cake of this size you will need 1 ¾ lbs. marzipan. Brush the cake with apricot jam or marmalade to help the almond paste to stick to it.

The icing on the cake
You can ice the cake if you’d like or not. If so, beat the whites of two eggs very lightly with a fork until bubbles start to appear. Then sift in 5 cups golden unrefined confectioners’ sugar in two lots. While beating in the second lot add two teaspoons of lemon juice. I prefer my cake to sport a rough, snowdrift look rather than to have smooth icing, so I simply spread the icing thickly on to the top and sides of the almond paste covered cake with a spatula, then make snow peaks with the end of a spoon.

serves twelve

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


I wasn't planning on posting today. You would think after November’s marathon of blogging I would be relieved and move on to other things that are piling up.

In a sense I am relieved, not having the pressure of making sure I post so that I don’t get behind. But it seems that posting everyday has created a habit…doesn’t it take three weeks of doing something regularly to make it a habit?

Well, whatever it is, as I was going about cleaning the “scary” room today to make room for yet another project, my mind was going over a potential blog post idea. You see this morning I did my usual, get up, go into the office and check email and to see the news headlines. I also have been in the habit of checking one particular blog Not Without Salt. The author of this blog was the one who inspired me to do this crazy blogging everyday for a month thing. So I was curious what she posted each day. She was so faithful to the task, that is until the later part of the month and then the posts were slowing down.

I do not know her personally, but apparently, she is a young mom with two little boys that keep her hopping, and as any of us that have children know, they can consume a lot of time. I remember those days. I am in a different stage of life now, with both kids in college. Yes I work, and I’m busy, but it is not as demanding as having little ones under foot.

I was making a favorite family fall soup today and it dawned on me that I started making this soup about 17 years ago, when my kids were young and “under foot”. Looking back, even if they had blogs back then…which they didn’t…I don’t believe I would have been able to keep a blog current. I have to hand it to all these young mom’s out there, blogging or not, they are amazing.

Sometimes I think success in something means doing the best we can with what we have and what stage of life we are in. Success is in the trying, not necessarily the triumph. It is a personal standard, reaching the highest possible goal.

So to me, even though Not Without Salt didn’t get in 30 posts for the National Blog Writing Month, she chose a higher standard, investing in those relationships that really matter.

So for those of you who are investing in your families, cooking, creating memories and traditions, here is a tried and true family favorite from my kitchen to yours.


Curried Butternut Squash Soup

4 tbsp. butter
1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
6 cups butternut squash (approx. 3 pounds), peeled and cubed
1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped
1 cup parsnips, peeled and chopped
2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1 ½ tsp. curry powder
½ cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste

Garnish: toasted pepitas, caramelized shallots or garlic croutons are tasty as well.

Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat. Add onion and celery; cook over low heat covered 10 minutes or until limp. Add squash, carrots, parsnips, thyme and curry powder. Cover saucepan and cook 10 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.
Add the chicken stock and dry white wine and simmer 20 to 30 minutes. Purée soup in food processor until smooth. Return to saucepan and add cream, salt, and pepper.

Ladle soup into warmed serving bowls and garnish with toasted pepitas, caramelized shallots or garlic croutons.

Serves 4 to 6