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A quick word on this year’s Thanksgiving baking: as usual, I brought desserts.  I wasn’t sure how many of the other 20-ish guests were bringing dessert, so I went a little crazy.

  • Banana Ice Cream with Caramelized White Chocolate Freckles, from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home.  I’d never had banana ice cream before, but for some reason this recipe jumped out at me.  It was a HUGE hit.  Plus, I was a big fan of how she does her recipes – clear instructions that are ordered well – she tells you what to have prepped in advance and that made it all come together smoothly.  I have the book out of the library, where it (of course) has holds, so it will go back this week – but I might have to get myself a copy before too long, to keep David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop company on my shelf.  Oh, and I have half of the white chocolate bombe shell leftover, and the only question is which recipe to use it in/on?  Dark chocolate for contrast?  Something tart for a different kind of contrast?
  • Caramel Pumpkin Pie, from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking.  This was like darker, slightly more intense pumpkin pie.  I made it the morning of, with limited time, and the sugar took forever to caramelize, so I may not have gotten it quite as dark as would be ideal.  The flavor of the pie ended up being a nice balance between pumpkin and caramel.  I’d make it again, but not prebake the crust as long as she calls for (I used her Good for Almost Everything Pie Dough, in my brand-spanking-new food processor, and it was marvelously flaky but a bit too browned).
  • My Favorite Pecan Pie, also from Baking.  It earned the title.  Mark and I fought out who would have the last piece.  The espresso powder adds just the right hint of coffee flavor, and the dark chocolate chunks are perfect against the gooey filling.  Plus pecans are awesome.  I ended up keeping this one at home, which was a good call since there were tons of desserts to go around at dinner.
  • Double Apple Bundt Cake, again from Baking.  Big and moist and tasty, and a nice option for non-traditional-dessert people.  I didn’t ice it, but I kind of wish I had (I think the lemon icing would make a nice contrast to the sweet apple flavors).  I used Granny Smiths.

It’s a little bit of torture to write this all up now, in the midst of the Advent fast (no meat or dairy, fish generally allowed on the weekends).  It’s never my best fast – the rest of the world is firmly into holiday treat mode – but I’m doing pretty well with Lenten dinners.  Let’s not talk about the cream in my coffee, and just focus on the mujadara and vegetarian chili.  And now it’s time to decide which Christmas cookies to bake this year (I’ve been wishing I had a nice big expanse of counter to roll out sugar cookies and gingerbread).

I’m going to take my cue from Bronwen and wait to post those eggy, cheesy, meaty recipes until after Lent is over.  On to the vegan recipes!  This one came from the Moosewood Cookbook and makes a satisfying, brothy soup.

You cook some pearl barley until tender, then drain it.  Meanwhile, chop and saute an onion, adding garlic and sliced mushrooms after a few minutes.  Once that’s all tender, add some soy sauce and sherry.  The recipe gives a range for how much of each to add, and I would definitely err on the light side with the soy sauce to avoid an overly salty soup.  I went on the higher end and ended up with a soup that was just a touch too salty the first time around.  With leftovers, I added water to dilute the broth and it ended up perfect.

Anyway, you combine the mostly-cooked barley and the mushroom-onion mixture, add several cups of water and some pepper, and let the whole thing simmer for a bit.  It wasn’t terribly photogenic, plus dinner tends to get eaten after sunset these days, so no photos – but imagine a nice oomphy broth with sliced crimini mushrooms floating on top and some chewy barley hiding at the bottom of the bowl.  We ate it with a green salad and Grand Central potato bread.  And like I said, it made for delicious diluted leftovers.

Goodness, it’s felt like a long week.  Probably because last weekend wasn’t exactly relaxing, but I can’t really complain.  Friday night was the funeral of one of our dear priests, and Saturday morning was the memorial liturgy, followed by the burial and a meal.  All of that gives you plenty of time to grieve and remember and sing – first church music, then the meal and remembrances ended up feeling dominated by music, which is perfectly fine with me.  Apparently, once you’ve been through all those services with a group of people, standing in the church basement in a circle holding hands and singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Amazing Grace” is no longer a hokey thing to do.  And no matter how solemn and sad the occasion, fourteen or so priests coming out of the altar like out of a clown car will always be funny.  Memory eternal, Fr. David.

And now we must get on with Lent.  I’m trying to go to at least one extra service each week.  We were discussing how to observe Lent during kindergarten Sunday School a few weeks ago (as in, trying to prod the younguns to think about it for five minutes) and talking about things you could do or things your family does.  Answers ranged from “going to church more” to “not eating yogurt” (although one young man was hilariously upset about the lack of cheeseburgers during Lent) to “praying for people.”  I think they got it.  It reminded me, though, that I end to focus on the fasting and let other things slip – I do go to more services, but sometimes it’s just so much easier to come home and relax and eat some rice and beans.

Like the dork that I am, I was poking around in my own archives and found a few things that still rang true about Lent – there’s one about fasting (was that really five years ago?) that I still like, and I think the joy thing comes bit by bit, year by year.  A little more each time.  It’s not easy, but I still want to see it through.

This year I noticed two times that we sing Easter/Paschal music outside of that season – there’s Forgiveness Vespers, which kickstart Lent, where the choir sings some of (I think) the Paschal matins as we all go around begging forgiveness, and some of the same music at the funeral, with a few rounds of “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death” as we finish the funeral procession.  There’s some music that you just associate so much with a certain mood (whatever that music or mood is) and then hearing it in different contexts can put a different spin on it.  I love that.

Back to books & recipes before too long.

(Photos from two previous years – the church after Agape Vespers and the remains of a red egg.)

Whoa!  I just did the unthinkable.  I got up an hour early on a Monday morning in order to make more delicious steel-cut oats.  Two reasons: I polished off the first batch last week, and this week my in-the-house, read-to-eat options were cut down to…toast.  Or getting up early in pursuit of steel-cut goodness.  So up I got, and I toasted the oats, then boiled them, then let them simmer for half an hour, then sat down with a bowl and some maple syrup and a cup of coffee without cream. The recipe, naturally, came from Good to the Grain.

So getting up an hour early is the first unthinkable thing (I have problems leaving the house on time in the morning).  Taking pictures (although yes, the bowl is already empty – steel-cut oats just aren’t that photogenic without some attractive fruit on top) and immediately uploading them onto my computer is the second unthinkable thing.  The third is actually presenting them here before I even finished my second cup of coffee.  And as of this typing, I’m not yet running late for work.  You know, this is the way I used to blog.  I kind of miss it.

Clean Monday is off to a good start.  And tomorrow I can reheat leftovers and sleep a bit longer.  Although (shh, don’t tell) I’m enjoying this more relaxed morning routine.

Well, yesterday was Meatfare Sunday, which announces the coming of Lent.  No more meat until after Pascha (Easter) and this week is the last week for eggs & dairy, so I’m declaring it Dairy Week.  A final round of those delicious poppy seed wafers made with butter, eggs and heavy cream?  Yes, please.  Crumbled feta on a cracker?  Why not!  Buttery apple crisp with vanilla ice cream?  Why yes, let’s pick up some more vanilla ice cream.

This morning I realized that I didn’t have any granola to go with my Greek yogurt, so instead I thought I’d make oatmeal.  But I wanted it to be…exciting…so I checked out the index of Good to the Grain to see if she had any suggestions.  That’s when I spotted a recipe for steel-cut oatmeal and remembered that I had steel-cut oats languishing in the cupboard.  She has you toast the oats in a little melted butter, then add the water and cook until thick and creamy – and the result really IS thick and creamy.  Pour a little cream on top (don’t mind if I do) and add a bit of sweetener (she has a recipe for a pear compote, but I went for quick and easy with maple syrup) and stick the leftovers in the fridge to reheat on work mornings.

I’m a happy camper – and I think this will still be delicious during Lent without the cream (shh, I cheat with butter during Lent) but with some fruit.  I’m always at a loss for Lenten breakfasts beyond toast with almond butter.  Regular oatmeal is okay, but to me it just begs for DAIRY to make it more exciting.  The steel-cut oats are just a touch more thrilling.

In related news, Bronwen and I are picking things up again with Long Distance Kitchen, just in time for those Lenten recipes!  Hello, beans!  I still have old recipes to post (ahem) so maybe I should get started on that before I dive into the new stuff – milk tea cupcakes, green tea & chocolate macaroons, that apple crisp (are we sensing a dessert theme here, or is it just me?)

Let’s talk about Christmas baking.  Man am I rusty at this whole talking-about-something-besides-books thing!  It’s been a while, hasn’t it?  I get up on my librarian high horse and it’s all books, all the time!  That’s great and all, but not my only mission in life.  There’s also food, you know.

As usual, my commission is to bake something for Christmas.  I thought about going all elaborate, but I kept finding myself drawn to homier recipes.  Things that make you want to curl up with a blanket, drink some eggnog, nibble on a cookie or a scone, and hang out with family and friends.  Plus, there’s enough frantic preparations in the world without me joining in.

Also, I’m a firm believer in using Advent (the time before Christmas) as a time of preparation – the stuff like buying gifts and readying the house, but also the feast itself – and starting your celebration on the 25th.  Christmas isn’t over the next day – it’s just begun.  Also, I’m not supposed to be eating meat or dairy during Advent (although I’ve definitely been cheating on the dairy), which makes a great excuse for leaving a lot of the celebration until later.

So I’m keeping my Christmas baking fairly calm this week.  A certain young man put in a request for Dream Bars, an old favorite and easy to make, and I could hardly turn him down, especially after he got me this for Christmas.  I know!   Can you believe it?  I will never turn down any baking requests from him ever again.  My kitchen now has a nice touch of glossy cinnamon (and a good deal less counter space – but it’s a worthwhile trade).

So I’m making a batch of Dream Bars for the oh-dark-thirty potluck after the Christmas service (the main service begins at 11 pm and goes well into the morning) and another for Christmas dinner at my parents’.  I’m also making a batch of Figgy Buckwheat Scones for Christmas morning, and perhaps some Strawberry Barley Scones, too, if I’m feeling energetic (both recipes are from Good to the Grain).  I’d also like to make a batch of Poppy Seed Wafers, since they were a big hit at Thanksgiving, and maybe try the Sand Cookies (recipes from guess where – Good to the Grain).  Or some of Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace cookies for something chocolaty.  Both the fig scones and the poppy seed cookies are Long Distance Kitchen recipes that I’ve yet to post about, hopefully soon.

So there you have it!  Less decadent than usual, although that doesn’t mean less work.  Oh well, I lucked out and got Christmas Eve off work, so I’ve got plenty of time.  What are you making for Christmas?

Edited to add: get your Dream Bar recipe here – sorry to leave you hanging!

While waiting for some bread to bake (a recent Long Distance Kitchen assignment) I decided that I would figure out exactly how far behind I am on reporting in with my recipe successes and failures.  Lo and behold, there are recipes from MARCH that I haven’t yet written about, so let’s do the super-quick version, in chronological order.

Squash and Fennel Soup: the recipe comes from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin, a book we both own thanks to Bronwen (and several other recipes will come from here, as well).  It’s technically called Kabocha Squash and Fennel Soup with Creme Fraiche and Candied Pumpkin Seeds.  Since we made it back in Lent, I skipped the creme fraiche, and because I was lazy I skipped the candied pumpkin seeds, although they sound delicious.  No photos exist of this meal, since it wasn’t particularly photogenic, but Bronwen’s got photos of her process.

I used a kabocha squash as called for, which was a new squash to me.  I love fennel, so I was excited about that part.  I subbed olive oil for the butter, and used vegetable stock instead of chicken.  Blending soup in batches is a pain, but otherwise the process was fairly easy.  The flavor of the soup was hard to put my finger on – I liked it, but unfortunately I couldn’t stand to eat a whole bowl at a time.  Was it the kabocha?  Was it the combination of flavors?  I have no idea.  I ate a few small servings, never managing to finish a bowl, and then froze the rest.  Perhaps I’ll try thawing it soon and serving very small portions with something else as the main attraction.

Roasted Vegetables:  Now I’m beginning to realize why I fell behind – there were a few meals in a row that didn’t thrill me, and I got lazy.  The recipe for this (more simple instructions really than a recipe) came from Nigella Lawson’s Forever Summer.  Again no photos, and again Bronwen has some.  The idea is simple: take plenty of new vegetables – potatoes, zucchini, turnips, garlic, carrots, and leeks (although you could sub others easily).  Boil the potatoes for a few minutes, drain them, and throw them in a roasting pan with everything else.  Coat with olive oil and roast.

I had two minor problems: first, it turns out I don’t really like turnips.  So after a few chunks, I ended up eating around them.  Second, the zucchini got a bit mushier than I like, particularly in the leftovers.  Apart from that, this was a good, solid side dish, and it makes me want to experiment roasting other vegetables (I usually stick to potatoes and carrots).  The real beauty is that you don’t need to follow a recipe closely – a good thing when you’re learning to improv with cooking.

Chunky Guacamole: Bronwen sent me two variations on this recipe from The Best New Recipe – one that I could make during Lent, and one with bacon for after Lent.  I fully intended to do the bacon version, but ended up in the mood for regular ol’ guac – which reminds me that I really ought to try the bacon version now that it’s been a while.

Start with 3 avocados.  Mash one together with minced onion & garlic, a small minced jalapeno, cilantro, salt and cumin.  Cube the other avocados and throw them in.  Sprinkle with lime juice and mix lightly.  To make the bacon version, substitute scallions for the onion and add crumbled bacon and some diced tomato.  The bacon-less version was delicious and fresh and everything I wanted it to be, although next time I might reverse the mashed/cubed avocado ratio to make it slightly less chunky.  I’ll definitely come back to this recipe next time I make guacamole.

Chicken Paillards:  I’ll end this catch-up with my most frustrating Long Distance Kitchen experience to date.  This was another recipe from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, and I think it’s one of those recipes where the quality of your equipment – pan and stove – and the presence of a mallet/muscle to pound chicken really matter.  It doesn’t help when you do a miserable job of creating an edible side dish (let’s not even talk about the Worst Mashed Potatoes Ever, okay?)  That said, the chicken was pretty darn tasty once you got past the charred exterior.

Here’s what’s supposed to happen: you pound chicken breasts until they’re 1/3 of an inch thick.  My chicken had this incredible ability to rebound, so I’d get it flattish and then it would pouf back up.  I should’ve waited for my trusty assistant/dinner companion who would have used his perfectionist tendencies/muscle to make that chicken STAY FLAT.   But I was impatient and wanted to start cooking.  Be patient with your chicken – this is a cautionary tale.

Then you line up three dishes – flour, beaten eggs, and a combination of breadcrumbs, parmesan, and chopped parsley – and dip the chicken in each.  Then you heat a saute pan over high heat, swirl some oil in it, and “wait a minute.”  Then cook the chicken 3 minutes.  Then add some butter, cook another minute until the crumbs are “golden brown,” and turn the chicken.  Turn the heat to medium and cook until the other side is golden brown and the chicken is cooked through.  Here was the problem:  long before that first 3 minutes was up, I had blackened chicken on my hands.  The other side was blackened, too, long before it was cooked through.  I’m not sure how it worked for Bronwen and not me, but I definitely wouldn’t heat the pan as high as directed if I work up the courage to make these again.

And I want to make them again, because I loved the flavors in the recipe, and I love chicken with a crispy outer coating, and I loved the caper brown butter sauce that finished it off.  I’ll have to put chicken breasts on my grocery list and see if practice makes perfect.  But I sure gave the cookbook a good chewing out that first time!

I can’t decide if I’m more behind on my book reviews or the Long Distance Kitchen recipes, but let’s go for a recipe today.  A long time ago, Bronwen assigned us two salad-ish recipes from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian – Avocado Salad with Ginger and Peanuts, and Beets with Pistachio Butter.  I needed something vegan and wheat free to bring to a girls’ brunch, so this was perfect.  Both recipes were fairly easy to make, too, which was an added bonus on a Saturday morning.

As it turned out, both recipes were delicious and got devoured at the brunch, and our plates were clean before I thought about taking pictures.  So you’ll have to imagine.

For the avocado salad, all the work is in the ginger dressing. You cook rice vinegar, sugar, salt and water in a saucepan, then add fresh ginger.  I minced it, but that was a hassle and I’d probably go the grating route next time.  Let it cook until thickened, then cool and refrigerate until cold.  It got super, super thick, so I might cook it a bit less next time, until barely syrupy.

I used spring mix greens, in a big bowl rather than artfully arranged on a platter as suggested, and sliced avocado over the top, then let everyone dress their own salad.  I had chopped cilantro and roasted peanuts handy for garnish, and they both complimented the flavors nicely.  The dressing had a sharp tang from all the ginger, but was sweet at the same time, and the avocado and peanuts made a nice contrast.

For the beets, you wrap them individually in foil and roast them until tender.  Once they’re cooked, slide off those skins, slice them up, and add a little salt and pepper.  While they’re cooking, make the pistachio butter.

Two points about pistachio butter -  1) it is AMAZING.  Do not skip it.  2) For the love of all that is sacred, scour the earth to find SHELLED pistachios.  If it is late at night and the grocery store you are at only has unshelled pistachios, do not think “oh, it only calls for a cup and I can handle shelling these.”  Drive across town to find pistachios that are ready for you, because shelling a cup of pistachios is not like casually snacking on them.  They are salty and sharp and your hands will not forgive you.

Once you have located your SHELLED pistachios, or have wept and lamented over your unshelled pistachios, heat up some oil in a skillet (I used high-heat canola), then add a generous amount of smashed garlic.  Cook for a minute, then add the pistachios and cook a few minutes more.  Let the whole thing cool off a little, then give it a spin in the food processor.  The recipe says it should be just pourable, a little thinner than peanut butter, and mine looked a little like chunky almond butter.  Add more oil if you need to.

I set out the beets at room temperature, with a dish of pistachio butter to spoon over the top.  We couldn’t keep our hands off of it.  The combination of flavors between the beets and the pistachios was amazing.  It makes for a really satisfying, flavorful vegetable dish, especially during Lent when you’re craving richer, more complex flavors.  Pistachio butter and beets will cure what ails you, I’m sure of it.

I’ll be keeping both of these dishes in mind for future meals, but I’ve really got my eye on that pistachio butter.

In my seemingly endless effort to catch up on posting Long Distance Kitchen recipes, here’s what came next: Acorn Squash with Chili-Lime Vinaigrette, courtesy (again) of Smitten Kitchen.  Bronwen’s version can be found here.

This is a tasty, simple way to prepare squash.  Basically, you cut it into wedges, toss with salt, pepper and oil, and roast until done.  The wedges get all lovely and browned, and you can go about making something to eat with it.  I was super lazy and just made some rice.

While it’s roasting, you prepare a vinaigrette.  Don’t skip this, because it’s delicious.  Don’t think, I’ll just eat some plain roasted squash.  Don’t.

Mash some garlic (I was spacing out and had my handsome assistant do this, so I’m not really sure how it happened – like Bronwen, no mortar and pestle at my house).  Add salt, lime juice, chili and cilantro, plus some oil.  I just used some chili pepper flakes, lacking a fresh hot red chili.  Chilies intimidate me.

Drizzle the vinaigrette over your roasted squash.  Enjoy.

My only quibble with this recipe is that one squash + two people = lots of leftovers, and it was pretty blah when reheated.  Some of the zing was gone, as well as the great crispness of the freshly roasted squash.  Or maybe only dress the slices you’re going to eat, and reserve some vinaigrette, and recrisp your squash under the broiler for a minute when you get around to eating the leftovers.

One of the staples to come out of the Long Distance Kitchen project (and I define “staple” as something I made more than once) is mujadara.  Pretty good for something I’d never even heard of before, eh? Basically it’s onions, lentils and rice.  A little oil.  Some salt.  Water.  Cheap, filling, and easy, although it does require a little bit of patience waiting for those onions to cook.  And if you’re like me, you’ll cry bitter, bitter tears while you chop those onions.

The recipe comes from Orangette, but I got the link from Kyrie.  Unfortunately, all the photos from the process of cooking are of me doing goofy things in the kitchen.  Most are blurry.  There is no documentation of the end result (it’s not terribly photogenic, but you can get an idea of what it looks like from Orangette or from Bronwen’s results).

Basically, you caramelize the onions in a large pan.  Molly’s version at Orangette has you add the oil from the get-go, Bronwen used a method of dry cooking and then adding oil. I’ve tried it each way and…they both tasted the same.  In the meantime, cook some lentils.

Once the onions are caramelized, add the cooked lentils, some rice, water and salt.  Cook until the rice is done.  Eat. I treated this as a main dish, with a green salad on the side, but I’m also thinking it would be great with some lamb now that Lent is over.

July 2014
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Dinner success - the rare occasion when we eat exactly the same thing (except no hot salsa on his rice & beans).

Trucks, always trucks (and the water tables).

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