Mad about plaid

Lemme tell you a little story.I really dislike coconut.  The flavor is actually okay, especially in piña coladas made even more decadent with lots of ice cream.  For me it’s a texture thing.  The Kid, however, has no such exceptions.  Coconut is dietary anathema.  It does not pass my child’s lips in any form.

Because of our animus, coconut has never had a place in my kitchen.

Petey eats it, but Petey is one of the least picky humans I know.  I’d always thought it was one more food that he could take or leave, but would eat if placed before him.

But a while back, after close to three decades of matrimony, I discovered something that I never knew about my better half—the man loves coconut.His favorite dessert has to be coconut cake, with many layers, lots of pastry cream filling and tons of 7-minute frosting.  And each component jam-packed with sweet, white shreds of coconut.  The man has a sweet tooth.  As do I.

Not so with The Kid, probably because in our house, sweets are not forbidden fruit, and I think this easy access produced an almost non-existent desire for most things sugary.The Kid does though, have a big crush on shortbread.  Walker’s, the brand with the red plaid boxes are a special favorite.  Last year I made some for the child’s stocking.  That recipe was okay, but wasn’t as rich and buttery as Walker’s.

I wanted to make something a Walker’s devotee might mistake for their more famous shortbread cousin.  Last night I made another batch with a new recipe.

It’s based on a Martha Stewart recipe.  And in the making of it, I picked up a couple of tricks that will vastly improve your final product.Before baking, I cut the 9 X 13 pan of cookies into 40 pieces.  There were ten on the short side and four on the long; long rectangles which are called ‘fingers’.

I created these using my straight metal dough scraper, cutting all the way to the bottom.  Then I used a toothpick to place five neat holes down the length of each piece.  After they baked, I let them cool completely in the pan before turning them out.  I then used a serrated knife to convince them to break off cleanly.

And, as with any simple recipe with few ingredients, use the best quality you can swing.  It will make a difference.

Martha Stewart’s Walker-style shortbreadmartha-shortbread1 1/3 cups (2 sticks plus 6 tablespoons) butter, room temperature, plus more for pans

2/3 cup sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-by-1-inch baking pan, and line bottom with parchment paper. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add salt and vanilla, and beat to combine. Add flour, 1 cup at a time, beating on low speed until just combined.

Press dough into prepared pan, leveling and smoothing the top.

Bake shortbread until evenly pale golden, but not browned, 70 to 85 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool. Invert pan, and remove parchment.

shortbread

The Kid’s Christmas shortbread.

When completely cooled turn shortbread out of pan, score cuts with a serrated knife, and carefully break into bars.  Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.

I planned to flavor the shortbread with lemon zest and nutmeg.  But I discovered something else about my child.

Like a classic Chanel suit, The Kid likes it best simple and unadorned.In the case of shortbread, less is most definitely more.

Thanks for your time.

Use your bean

I get excited about all kinds of things…English muffins just happen to be one of them.

So I was making an English muffin for this morning.  I was really looking forward to it (even more than I usually look forward to any and all food).

The reason I was so eager to get at an ordinary piece of toasted carb is because of which spread I was planning to use.

I’ll admit it right here—I have a problem.

It’s an irresistible need to possess copious varieties of jams, jellies and preserves.  If it’s shiny, sweet, and in a jar, I’m in.  I pick them up wherever I go, be it grocery store, garden center, or even somewhere unexpected like TJ Maxx.

There are 18 different jars in my fridge right now.  And that’s not counting the various honies, golden syrup, and Goober Grape residing in cabinets.

jam shelves

This is most of them, but I have more jars than I have shelves.

About a month ago I was in Home Goods, at Brier Creek.  I love them for their uncommon pasta shapes and jellies.  That day I picked up short multi-colored ridged lasagna.  And, I bought a jar of pineapple jam.

I’ve never thought of preserving the fruit.  I love it fresh, and not much beats a piña colada made with pineapple juice, Coco Lopez, rum, and vanilla ice cream.  Happily, it turned out to taste just like the fruit, and really good on the whole-grain toast and English muffins that I prefer.

As good as it is, that didn’t stop me from what I did to it a few days ago.  I mixed in a heaping tablespoon of vanilla paste.  I closed it up and put it back in the chill chest for a bit so the flavors could mingle.

So that’s why I was so looking forward to breakfast today.

4 forms

While my bread was in the toaster I got to thinking about the four fantastic forms of vanilla: beans, extract, paste and powder.  I always try to have some of each in my kitchen, and they are awesome for jacking up the flavor of all kinds of things.

Vanilla beans: Scrape out the beans with a paring knife and use like you would extract (one bean=one teaspoon).  But when used in light colored foods the flecks of beans enhance the visual which in turn enhances the whole experience.  I love putting them in flavored butter, pudding, and homemade marshmallows.

Don’t toss those empty pods, either, throw them in your sugar canister for vanilla sugar, or add 4 pods to a pint of rum or vodka for homemade extract.

Extract: The old baking standby is also terrific added to unexpected dishes.  Try it in barbecue sauce, salad dressing and marinades.  Use it to make vanilla coke and to give French toast and pancake batter extra zip.

But please, for the love of all that’s holy and healthy, only use pure vanilla.  Although it’s no longer produced by milking the anal glands of beavers (yipes), it’s still made with eucalyptus oil, to which many people are allergic, pine tar, and the wood pulp left after making paper.  Mmmm…pulpy goodness.

Paste: Terrific for adding to prepared foods, like honey and syrups.  Paste also makes lemonade and iced tea into something really special.  Whisk a teaspoon of it and a tablespoon of brown sugar into 1 cup of sour cream for fruit salad dressing or cheesecake topping.  Paste works really well as a mix-in for instant hot cereals.

Powder: When baking, I always shake some into my dry ingredients.  It supports and enhances the extract or beans that I add to the wet ingredients.  For the best cinnamon toast you’ve ever had mix ¼ cup sugar, 1 tablespoon cinnamon, 1 tablespoon vanilla powder, 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg, and a pinch of salt.  Try adding vanilla powder to coffee or sprinkling it on halved stone fruit before grilling.

I’ve also cooked down apple jelly with vanilla beans.  The apple flavor fades, and I’m left with an intense vanilla jam to add to my vast spread collection.

And I know that they say admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, but I have absolutely no plans to address my affliction (although I have overheard whispered conversations between Petey and The Kid using phrases such as jelly intervention, and jam rehab).

Yeah, yeah, pass me the biscuits; I just got some sassafras jelly.

sassafras

Here is my newest baby.  It tastes kind of like root beer jam.

Thanks for your time.

Curds and why didn’t I know about this?

I didn’t even know this was a thing.

I was shopping online for The Kid’s birthday present, and I got distracted looking for this awesome pear/vanilla jam I bought from Whole Foods.  It was an intensely flavored spread that made me feel like my morning toast was actually a piece of birthday cake in disguise.

Unfortunately, they no longer carry it, and I never took note of the brand, which means I can’t look for it by name.  So, every once in a while I’ll fall down the Google rabbit hole for a few hours searching for something which may not even exist anymore.

During the hunt, I discovered that Dickinson’s, a Smucker’s-owned company that makes lemon and lime curds, also makes vanilla curd.

Vanilla Curd?!?  Stop and let that sink in a moment.  Vanilla.Curd.

And thus I discovered vanilla curd was a thing.  I decided to purchase some.

But here there be roadblocks.  #1-It’s not sold in any stores within a 50-mile radius.  #2-I can order it, but only by the case.  #3-The cases start at $30.00.  #4-Shipping for something I don’t even know if I’ll enjoy is an average of $12.87.

Look, I just bought a pair of sandals that I had to return because they gave me blisters, I can’t have two massive shopping fails in one week, my pride just won’t stand for it.  I took the shoes back to Marshalls, but I can’t return internet curd just because I don’t like it.

This thing might just work…

But then my search-engine-softened brain had a thought: Gee whiz, I can cook.  Maybe there’s some type of home machine that fits onto my lap and can connect to the whole wide world to find a recipe?

By gum, there is, and I found one (and then tweaked it some).

Debbie’s vanilla curd

curd ingredients

1 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch

2 vanilla beans, halved, split and scraped

1 cup water

Large pinch of salt

2 egg yolks, beaten

4 tablespoons cold butter, cut into pieces

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a medium pan, combine sugar, cornstarch, salt, and vanilla beans and caviar. Add water and cook over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, or until thickened.

In a small bowl, lightly beat egg yolks. Whisking constantly, very slowly pour about a cup of the hot sugar mixture into egg yolks; add egg yolk mixture back to hot sugar mixture, whisking to combine. Cook over medium heat for 4 minutes, or until thickened.

Remove from heat.  Discard vanilla beans; whisk butter into hot curd. Stir in vanilla extract. Let cool; spoon curd into airtight container and store in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

vanilla curd

The finished curd, becoming acquainted in my fridge.

This stuff tastes like vanilla did when you were a kid, and your taste buds were new.  Think drinking milkshakes in the back seat or Hunt’s Snack Pack with the metal pull-off lid that all the grown-ups said would cut your tongue when you licked it (but it never did).  It tastes like what vanilla smells like.  It tastes like warm happiness.

The texture is like lemon curd or creamed honey.  It’s slow moving and very spreadable.

What to put it on?

Well, my spoon worked awesomely.  But seriously, I’d put in on cakes, or cookies.  You could drizzle it on ice cream or fruit, or stir it into some hot milk, with a dusting of nutmeg.

As for me, I had a schmear on my English muffin.

And totally felt like I was back in the lunchroom at Central Elementary.

Thanks for your time.

A spicy tale

Boy, I raised one thoughtful spawn.

Very close, very old friends of The Kid just had a baby (not quite one of those new year babies—they missed it by about 36 hours).

But since it’s not possible to wrap up sleep and deliver it all tied up with a pretty bow, my child did the next best thing; the gift of time was chosen.

Homemade wild rice chicken chowder and a lentil stew were made, along with something sweet with which to nibble.  The chowder and stew were prepared and are in the chill chest in freezer bags.  But because of The Kid’s work commitments, I volunteered to bake and pack up the cookies.

When the couple was asked for their confectionary preference, a ginger molasses cookie was requested.  Since this particular type is not in our family’s repertoire, an internet search was made.

I found a recipe that I felt hit most of the notes, and started with that.  Then I fleshed it out by altering flavor and techniques.

I used a vanilla bean and vanilla extract.  The caviar I added to the butter.  I tossed the empty pod into my sugar canister.  The original recipe, for some reason, never called for nutmeg.  I added it.  I also added nutmeg to the rolling sugar.I used a cookie scoop to portion the dough, instead of just a spoon.  Using one is quicker, easier, and makes all the cookies the same size, which means they all cook at the same time.

I leave you with one crucially important piece of advice.

Do not crowd the cookies in the pan while baking.  And for the love of all that is holy, do not rush them into the oven by cutting short the dough refrigeration time.  They will spread out all over the sheet, and not set up correctly.  I did this, and had to throw away the first batch of nine (See, I crowded the sheet pan).  They tasted really good, but were too thin and gooey to live.

Chewy ginger molasses cookies

ginger cookies 2

1 vanilla bean

1½ cups butter, softened

2 cups granulated sugar + more for rolling

½ cup molasses

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

2 eggs

4 ½ cups all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

1 ½ teaspoons salt

 DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Split the vanilla bean, scrape caviar onto butter.  Set aside at room temp to soften.

Whisk together flour, soda, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and salt. Set aside.

With electric mixer, beat together softened butter and 2 cups sugar on medium for 1 minute until light and fluffy.  Add in eggs, molasses, vanilla extract, and beat on medium-low until combined.

Gradually add in dry ingredient mixture and beat until fully incorporated.

Using a medium (about 2 tablespoon capacity) cookie scoop, portion out all the dough.

Refrigerate scoops for 1 hour then remove and them roll into balls.  Return to fridge and let chill another 30-45 minutes.

Fill a small bowl with about 1/2 cup sugar and a pinch of nutmeg, and roll four balls in one at a time until they’re completely coated. Place on parchment-covered cookie sheet and bake for 5 minutes, spin the pan 180 degrees then bake for 5 more until they begin to slightly crack on top (They’ll crack more while cooling.).  Remove from the oven and transfer cookies, still on parchment to wire racks to cool. Bake off the next four.  Store in a sealed container for up to 1 week.

Makes about 2 ½ dozen.

I’ve never been a ginger snap, molasses cookie kind of girl.  But I have to admit, when I tasted one of the rejects, I was really surprised.  Yes, they are very spicy.  But extremely tasty, too.  These are more of a grown-up cookie for somebody who wants less sweet and more sassy to their desserts.  They would also be really, really good cookies with which to make ice cream sandwiches, say with some butter pecan, or peach ice cream.

And again, do not rush these into the oven.  They must be very cold and hard before hitting the heat or you will have delicious manhole covers.

This is bad.  You do not want this.

Thanks for your time.

 

 

Winning Black Friday

So Thanksgiving dinner has been served, eaten, and cleaned up.  Most of the relatives have gone home, and you’re reclining, semi-comatose, on the sofa.  Then Aunt Minnie from Altoona begins talking about Christmas shopping, and she Wants.To.Start.Tonight.

You’ve got a few options.

#1-Get up and toss her, Uncle Jasper, Cousin Viola, their luggage, and their 3 yappy, incontinent dogs outside, lock the door and turn off the lights.

#2-Get up, put on your shoes and jacket, and take them for 4 or 5 hours of bruising, shoulder-to-shoulder turkey night shopping.

#3-Get up, program their GPS for the best local retail Mecca, put some good music on in the kitchen, and while they’re gone get some relaxing, solitary prep done for tomorrow’s breakfast.

If you pick #3, I’ll guide you through the almost Zen-like process.  It’s simple and low-key, kind of a cool-down exercise from the earlier frenzy.

My breakfast menu consists of scrambled eggs, easy homemade hash browns, fall porridge, and awesome, delicious brown sugar pecan scones.

I made up this first recipe just this morning, for my own breakfast.  It was hella good and kept me full for hours.

Start with the hot cereal.  Any type will work, from instant oatmeal to slow-cooked grits (I used Special K Nourish).  What makes it special is this topping.  You can make fruit and cereal tonight, and heat them up in the microwave before service.

Harvest porridge

4 unpeeled pears, cored and cut into ½ inch cubes

¼ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons maple syrup or brown sugar

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ cup chopped almonds

½ cup golden raisins

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat non-stick skillet and melt butter.  Put in everything except raisins and vanilla.  Cook on medium.  When the pears and almonds are browned, add raisins and vanilla, and stir ‘til hot. Spoon onto hot cereal.  Serves four.

     My dad loves them, but I never understood scones.  They’re not quite muffins, not quite biscuits.  They just seemed dry and weird.  That was before I tasted Chef Jason Cunningham’s brown sugar pecan scones at the Washington Duke (3001 Cameron Blvd, Durham).  They’re neither dry nor weird.  Flaky and tasty, these are what scones are supposed to be.  Thanks to Chef Jason for the recipe.

Make these the night before up to the refrigeration stage, and bake them off in the morning.

Brown Sugar Pecan Scones

Yield 18

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup cake flour

2/3 cup light brown sugar

2/3 cup Butter

1 Tbl baking powder

Pinch Salt

1 large egg

½ cup whipping cream

½ cup orange juice

¼ cup chopped pecans

1 Tbl vanilla extract

Combine all-purpose flour and baking powder and mix thoroughly. Reserve.

Cream butter in a stand mixer until soft. Add brown sugar, salt and vanilla and cream until fluffy.  Add eggs and beat until fully incorporated.

Add cake flour and combine and then add the orange juice. Add half of the all-purpose flour mixture and mix until just incorporated.  Add the cream, incorporate and then the remainder of the flour mixture along with the pecans.

Do not over-mix! Once all ingredients are incorporated, wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate.

Once dough is thoroughly chilled, place on a floured work surface and roll to approximately ½ inch thickness. Cut into triangles.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake approximately 12-20 minutes until golden brown.

     These hash browns are so simple you can quickly make them in the morning.  It’s the only way I make them anymore.

Homo habilis hash browns

In a non-stick skillet melt 2-3 tablespoons butter.  Grate 1 unpeeled potato per diner directly onto melting butter.  Grate in about 2 teaspoons yellow onion per potato.  Salt and toss to mix.  With spatula, flatten in pan and cook on medium until golden-amber around edges (8-10 minutes).  Put plate on top of pan and carefully flip onto plate, cooked side up.  Slide back into pan and cook other side, 6-8 minutes.  Slice into wedges, and serve.

     You can go through all this, or do what I do.  Go to someone else’s house for dinner, go home and do most of your holiday shopping online in your pajamas, then sleep in on Friday.

Good luck, and happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks for your time.