Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year's Eve

Hello All! I hope you had a wonderful holiday or break, however you chose to celebrate. I appreciate you letting me take time off from blogging. There was a great deal of cooking and baking, but honestly it all happened so quickly and often, I didn't get a chance to capture the process! My mom and I are tackling Julia Child's beef bourguignon recipe tonight and I'll be back later this week to recap our success or failure. Here is hoping for the former! It's a first for both of us and I'm pretty excited. I got Julia Child's famous cookbook for Christmas, so I imagine she will be showing up pretty regularly in the next few months.

However, I do have some party pictures to show you. On December 21st my family hosted a holiday cocktail party for about 65 family friends. In years past, we've hosted a more formal, sit down dinner. This year, we decided to mix it up and include multiple generations and groups of people. When my mom sent out invites, I'm pretty sure she didn't expect 65 "yes" RSVPs. So we cooked and cooked and cooked to prepare. It was such a fun night and was an amazing experience. Next year we might do a bit of catering to make the process easier, but it was such a blast. I have no comment about the next morning, however.

Here are some of the culinary highlights!

First, chocolate cupcake cookies. I don't think that's the official name, but it's what fiance likes to call them. I made them a few weeks ago for the 49er game, but I made them about 1/2 the size and they were perfect. They were the perfect bite. I also piped the frosting and it worked incredibly. I will never frost them any other way!

Next, the Cranberry Bliss Bars I made a few weeks ago. I cute them super small and they worked great for our finger-food theme. 

All of our food was bite size and required no utensils. I'll share some of the actual food below, but since my main contribution was dessert, that's my first focus. Here was the first part of the cookie bar. The cranberry bliss bars and my mom's rum logs.

Here is the second part of the cookie bar.

On the left is sticky gingerbread cake. Then on the right are iced gingerbread cookies.

On the left are the chocolate cupcake cookies. On the right are my family's famous sugar cookies.

For regular food, we had tons of options. There was a full table of food and two cheese stations.

I, of course, had way too much fun putting together the cheese plates. Because I'm a cheese monster. Obviously. Anyway, it was such a fun night and I can't wait until next year's party!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cheap and Easy Weeknight Dinner Series: Hoisin and Garlic Pork

Everyone can use a quick meal this time of year. Whether you are busy shopping, wrapping, baking, cooking or traveling, a fancy dinner is the last thing you want to tackle. Fiance actually created this dinner the other night. We picked up a few pork chops and he dumped them in a bag with a few diced cloves of garlic, some hoisin sauce, soy sauce and a tiny bit of salt and pepper. The amounts don't really matter as long as you have enough to cover the meat. We left them in the fridge overnight and took out the bag about 30 minutes before cooking to let the meat come to room temperature. You could also marinate for a couple of hours in the afternoon if you wanted. Then we placed the pork on tin foil and broiled them for about 8 minutes on each side until cooked through. I also made broccoli-quinoa casserole for a side dish. It was an incredibly tasty, quick and filling meal that we both contributed to and enjoyed. It's a great option for the holidays when you just need to whip something together. Give it a try!

After marinating, but before cooking.

Just before gobbling down the final result.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Cranberry Bliss Bars

Next weekend my family is hosting a holiday party. Unlike previous years, it will be a cocktail party with heavy appetizers and I came up with the idea of a cookie bar for desserts. All of the dishes are finger foods, so I thought cookies and bars would be excellent. I am going to make my gingerbread cookies, chocolate cookies I made a few weeks ago and then these cranberry bliss bars. I will be sure to share all of the other recipes after the party, but I needed to make sure these bars were worthy of the occasion. The recipe is new and a party is not the time to risk a baking disaster. So my family and some friends are serving as guinea pigs.

I personally think these desserts are a huge success. These are just the most beautiful desserts. The colors are so vibrant and fresh, and the taste is amazing. The soft cookie on the bottom pairs so nicely with the crunchy chocolate on top. The cookies are also a nice departure from some traditional holiday desserts, but are sweet enough for any chocolate lover. I promise.

Cranberry Bliss Bars
recipe from here

1 Cup - Butter, Very Soft
1 Cup - Brown Sugar
1/3 Cup - Sugar
3 - Large Eggs
2 Teaspoons - Vanilla Extract
2 Cups - All Purpose Flour
1 1/2 Teaspoon - Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon - Dried Ground Ginger
3/4 Cup - Craisins
1 Cup - Lindt White Chocolate, Coarsely Chopped

4 Ounces - Cream Cheese, Softened
2 Tablespoons - Butter, Softened
3 Cups - Powdered Sugar
1 Teaspoon - Vanilla Extract
2 Teaspoons or more- milk

1/3 Cup - Craisins, Coarsely Chopped
1 Cup - Lindt White Chocolate, Coarsely Chopped
1-2 Tablespoons - Freshly Grated Orange Zest

1 ( 10 Ounce) Bag - White Chocolate Chips
2 Tablespoon - White Crisco

Start by creaming together the butter and sugars.
Add the eggs and vanilla and mix again. Add the flour, baking powder and dried ginger and mix just until combined.
Fold in the chopped white chocolate and craisins. Here is the white chocolate I used. It was super easy because it comes in droplets, so chopping was much easier than if the chocolate came in a block.
This picture shows how roughly I chopped the chocolate. The big pieces add a really nice texture.

Spread the batter in a 10x15 cookie pan. It will be thick, but I found a spoon worked best. I laid tin foil in the pan and then sprayed with non-stick spray and it worked great. So don't skip the tin foil! Bake for 20 minutes at 350 until just cooked. Don't overcook.
Once completely cool, beat together the butter and cream cheese for the frosting. Add the vanilla and milk and mix again. Add the powdered sugar and blend. Try and get the frosting as close to the edges as possible. I forgot the milk so mine was a bit thick.
Sprinkle your toppings over the frosting. I'd start with the orange zest next time because it is the lightest and has the most trouble sticking to the frosting. So the wetter the frosting the better. Then do the cranberries and end with the chocolate. Press down slightly to make sure the chocolate pieces are stuck.
See how pretty all the colors look?
To make the glaze, put the white chocolate chips in the top of a double boiler, or a glass boil on top of a pan with simmering water. Stir with a whisk. Once completely melted turn the heat down as low as possible and add the crisco. If the glaze isn't thin enough, keep adding crisco one teaspoon at a time until the desired thickness. Using a fork, drizzle the glaze over the top. I had a bit of difficulty with this step, but you'll get the hang of it after a while.

Let the glaze harden for an hour or overnight. Lift the entire thing out of the pan using the tin foil. Pull the foil away from the sides. By removing the whole thing from the pan before cutting, you preserve the really nice edges. See?
Apparently I'm incapable of eyeballing measurements. You can see how horribly lopsided my lines were. It actually worked out nicely because I was able to try squares and triangles.

The squares are definitely easier to cut and they can be cut a bit smaller, which is great for parties. However, the triangles are really pretty. So if I was making these for a professional event or something, I'd opt for the triangles.
I love the side view. These babies are really so pretty.
 Here are the triangles.
They lay out so nicely. In the future I'd do a better job with frosting to the edge, or I'd trim the edges so you don't see the crispier edges. either way, I think they are beautiful and tasty to boot!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Weekend Explorations

Hello All. Pardon my absence. I've spent the last few days in DC with my fiance and it's been lovely. What with flying and packing and madness, my posting has been a bit off. I promise soon I will be back on track with tons of holiday recipes and such. Last year I was feeling super creative around the holidays and did tons of crafts. This year I have no desire to pick up my hot glue gun. As a result, not many holiday craft posts are in the works. Maybe it's all the flights or what not, but I just want to be with my boo and relax. Rather, I want to have a house and decorate that space instead of my adorable apartment. To be honest, I did do a lot of decorating, but not in the creative way that the holidays usually inspire. I find myself in limbo once again. I know I'll be moving in the not-so-distant-future. So investing time, effort or dollars seems futile. I'm trying to counter this feeling by enjoying the moment. Some moments I do really well, others are total failures. I'm thinking some holiday baking this weekend might be just the solution. I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, here are some of my activities. 

Friday night was the night for all things twinkly and sparkly. Following a holiday party at this fabulous building...

We decided to head to Old Town, Alexandria. We were making our way to King Street and turned onto the main drag and I literally let out a gasp. Every tree for block and blocks and blocks were lit up and the total effect was simply breathtaking. Literally. Hence the gasp. Something about all the tiny shops and all the holiday spirit really melted my heart and there may or may not have been a glisten in my eye. Yes I'm a total sap.

We grabbed dinner at the Pizzeria Paradiso and the combination of the hot pizza, beer (for fiance) and our fancy party clothes created an evening straight out of a romantic comedy movie. I half expected to hear bells and for snow to fall. Not that I minded in the slightest. I firmly believe everyone needs a strong dose of corny every now and again.

Saturday and Sunday were filled with more good food and friends. My visits to DC are usually on a few days, so it was so nice to have almost a week to fit in lots of social visits with friends. We made the most of the opportunity. Then today after another social lunch, I walked around Downtown Holiday Market. I love taking advantage of fun little opportunities like these that cities provide. It was so fun to stumble upon this little fair and meander along the stalls. There was tons of interesting jewelry, but in my opinion the scarves and knitwear were definitely the main attraction. I would share the experience and my finds but apparently my camera cord was not on the list of things that made it into my suitcase. Anyway, it was a really fun experience and I'd encourage anyone who is downtown to just take a quick stroll through. Hope you are all enjoying the holidays, whichever holidays they may be.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thanksgiving Dilemma

I find certain things about Thanksgiving to be particularly fascinating. People are very territorial over leftovers. Everyone seems to feel "meh" about the turkey, yet it's the centerpiece of the meal. Everyone has their favorite dish. And everyone seems to have an opinion about the stuffing. It's too soft or too hard or has too many or too few additional ingredients. Stuffing happens to be my favorite. That and pumpkin pie. I could eat an entire pie in under 24 hours without batting an eyelash. This fact isn't really surprising give my unhealthy love of carbs. Because I was traveling over the holidays, I only got to have one serving of stuffing. I was initially pretty bitter about it, until I remembered that I had a bag of stuffing mix from a specialty grocery store in my pantry. On a whim, I decided to make stuffing. Was this decision completely rational? No. No one needs an entire pan of stuffing. Especially since I didn't have anything to well...stuff in it. But I didn't care. And I loved my stuffing. I didn't eat the entire pan, but I did make quite a dent. And it made me really really happy. So the moral of the story is, when in doubt, eat stuffing.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Unintentional Christmas Decoration

I've spent the past several Thanksgivings traveling. During college and when I was working in DC, I'd either go home or visit grandparents in New York. The last two years, I've visited my fiance's family in Boston. The day I returned to my apartment I would religiously go out and buy a Christmas tree. I've always been that person to pull out my decorations the day after Thanksgiving. I was really annoying as a child. My poor mom would cook all day Thursday and Friday morning I would turn the house into a disaster zone by dragging in every box, emptying its continents and leaving the mess for her to sort. Oops. (Sorry mom!). Now that I have my own place I'm responsible for the mess, but my schedule hasn't changed one bit. I start listening to Christmas music in November and I'm itching to take out decorations mid-way through the month. Since I have yet to host Thanksgiving, there isn't much harm.

This tree was my first little baby. The picture is a bit deceiving. It was pretty tiny. And I had maybe ten ornaments and filled the rest with little plastic ones from Target. Each year got slightly larger. And fiance got more and more involved.

Last year I went a little overboard. I sort of forgot that I was by myself. I'm not sure this picture does it justice, but let's just say the next day I couldn't raise my arms above my head because I was so sore.

That brings us to this year. I am going to be traveling a lot in December and it didn't really seem practical to get a tree. I knew it would die quickly and I'm busy. So as much as it seemed sacrilegious to forego the ritual, I convinced myself it was the best course of action.

Then I returned to my apartment after Thanksgiving. Let me tell you a little inside secret about long-distance. You'd think it would be easier to return after spending a lot of time with your significant other. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The longer you are with them and the more time you spend, the harder returning to your "normal" life becomes. I get used to having fiance around. I get used to what a room feels like when he is in it. I get used to having a buddy to go places with.

All of sudden, my cozy apartment feels cold. The room feels empty and I am perpetually waiting for something or someone to come home. And nothing makes it better. Except waiting for the transition period to go away.

Well that really bad day was Tuesday. Monday I was too busy, so the gloominess settled in Tuesday morning. Despite my first inclination to wallow on the couch all day, an empty fridge provided enough motivation to get out of sweatpants long enough to get some food. I went to the store and got my key go-to grumpy foods: pickles, chocolate, cheese, and apple cider. And then this happened.

I'm not exactly sure how. I blame fiance. I was on the phone with him when the little trees caught my eye and he encouraged my impulse purchase. It was definitely against my better judgment. At least this year I managed to restrain myself to a reasonable size. Don't get me wrong, next year I want seven feet. But I needed my arms today, so while I'm still by myself, it was necessary to go small. The ornaments dwarf the tree and it sort of leans to one size. But I love it and it makes me smile. So I guess fiance was right.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Best Apple Pie Ever

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. I took last Friday off because I was with family and intended to write this post on Sunday night and post this recipe yesterday, but after a 7.5 hour flight, I was simply too tuckered. Yes, you read that correctly. What should have been six hours at the most became 7.5 hours due to wind or some mysterious evil travel elf. So, a day late, I'm sharing with you my amazing Thanksgiving discovery. If I'm being honest, apple pie really isn't my favorite. I know it's the American dessert, but I'd much rather have pumpkin, pecan, chocolate cream, coconut cream, or any other type of fruit pie. I'm not really sure why, I've just always felt that way. However, it was one of my assignments for Thanksgiving and I was determined to do it well. This recipe may have actually changed my position on apple pie. It was that good. The key is to cook the apples and the sauce in a skillet before filling the crust. Sounds crazy I know, but it turns the goo into this amazing caramel and softens the apples just enough. I will never make another apple pie recipe again. Ever.

Caramel Apple Pie
recipe from here
note: I had a crust on hand from the pumpkin pie recipe, but you could also use store bought

6 -7 cups tart apples, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 tablespoons heavy cream (I used light and it was just great)
4 tablespoons butter

I started by peeling and slicing the apples. I must say, this task sucks. But I made fiance talk to me while I was wielding my knife and it helped pass the time.
Squeeze the lemon juice over the apples and toss. Then, add the brown and white sugar, the spices, and the salt and toss until all of the apples are coated. There will be some extra of the dry ingredients in the bottom. That's ok. Add the vanilla and the cream and mix again.
Melt the butter in a large skillet. When the butter is hot, add the apple mixture and cook on medium for about 8-10 minutes. It will start to sizzle and you will see the filling liquid turn thick and begin to resemble caramel.
At this point you can go right ahead and fill the pie shell or put the mixture in a bowl and let it sit at room temperature for a couple of hours until you are ready to bake the pie. I found it very help to be able to get that step out of the way and just assemble later. When assembling make sure you leave plenty of room around the crust because it will shrink in the oven.

Lay the second piece of pie shell on top or make a criss-cross pattern with strips. I went for the full cover because it seemed easier and I was trying this for the first time. Trim off a little of the extra crust around the edges, but leave enough so the rim of the dish is just covered. Using a fork, or your fingers, press the pieces together to seal. Next time, I'll brush a little cream in between the layers to seal extra tight. Make a few slits or poke some holes with forks on the top to allow the steam to escape. Brush the top with cream to help turn a lovely brown.

Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes and then turn the heat down to 350 and bake for another 45. I'd recommend you check on the pie about half way through and either used a pie crust shield or wrap some tin foil around the edges so it doesn't get too burnt. I meant to get a mid-slice picture, but the eating got in the way. Take my word for it, you'll love it! Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Cookie Bonanza: Part II

This recipe immediately caught my eye when I saw it on The Baker Chick's website. I've shared my sugar cookie recipe before, which will always be a favorite, but a chocolate option seemed amazing. I thought this recipe would be perfect for a tailgate with tons of men who like chocolate. The white frosting would also be the perfect base for 49ers-themed sprinkles. I absolutely loved these cookies, although they are incredibly rich and decadent. So perhaps not for the faint of heart.

I think they are adorable and round and fluffy. The frosting is very thick (I think I would add another tablespoon of milk next time, just to make it easier to spread). I will be making these babies again.

Soft Frosted Chocolate Sugar Cookies
recipe from here

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder (dutch process/Valharona power highly recommended)
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light-brown sugar
9 Tbsp butter, softened (1 stick + 1 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp sour cream
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 Tbsp vanilla extract

12 tablespoons of butter, softened. (1 stick and a half)
4 cups of powdered sugar
2 teaspoons of vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons milk or cream
gel food coloring (optional)

In a small bowl, I whisked together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
In a large bowl, I mixed the sugars, sour cream and butter until creamy. Add the egg, egg yolk and vanilla and mix again.

Add the flour-cocoa mixture and beat until combined. The batter will be thick.
Scoop the dough into balls, or use a cookie scoop. Best. Invention. Ever. My cookie scoop is about 1.5 tablespoons and I was able to make 24 cookies. But you can do as small as one tablespoon or as large as two tablespoons. Place the dough onto parchment. They don't need to be too spread out because the cookies really don't flatten too much. 
Bake for about ten minutes at 350 degrees. The cookies will be done when the outside looks like it's drying. If you touch the cookie, it should be slightly squishy, but not firm. Let the cookies cool completely before frosting.
When you are ready to frost and decorate, beat the butter until it's fluffy. Add the powdered sugar, a cup at a time, and beat until mixed. The frosting will be crazy thick. Add the vanilla and milk. I only used one tablespoon, but in the future will use two. Mix again.
Frost the cookies and add sprinkles. My mom gave me this adorable set which would be amazing for fall cookies. Decorations like these would work great for Thanksgiving!

But.....the 49er game was my focus. As you can see, my initial attempts at frosting were less than pristine. Tasty? Yes. Perfect? No.
My frosting definitely got better as I went along and the frosting softened a bit. I still think they are cute as a button! Enjoy!