Sweets for Your Sweetie

Not sure if you’ve heard, but Valentine’s Day is Friday. How could you miss the diamond commercials, the restaurant specials and the greeting card ads? I don’t buy into the idea that we have to get candy, flowers or jewelry to recognize the day. I really think Valentine’s Day should be more about celebrating however you like.

Rich and I sometimes go out for a date night dinner, but the last few years we have decided to cook at home and treat ourselves to a homemade dessert. Some years we make the expected decadent chocolate treat. Other years we go for something more non-traditional.

I have a few suggestions if you want to make something sweet for your sweetie, or yourself.

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If you want to have some fun, and make something impressive, try making your own candy hearts. They are much easier than they look. If you can play with play-dough, you can make these.

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For a supremely easy treat, try snickerdoodle bars. If you feel fancy you can cut them into hearts instead of bars.

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Try toffee bars for another easy treat that combines caramelly goodness with chocolate.

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If you feel like something a little more involved, try my version of zebra cakes. This is a great group project to share with your family or your better half.

We are still deciding what to make for our dessert this year. We do know we are having steak, baked potatoes and roasted green beans for the main event.

What are your plans for Valentine’s Day?

Vacation, Snow Storms and Elusive Chicken

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Vacation is over, or at least almost over. Calvin was supposed to go back to school on Monday, after two weeks off, but he had a snow day. And he has today off again. Twelve plus inches of snow and subzero temps kind of throw a wrench in things around here. We had blizzard conditions on Sunday and brutally cold temperatures Monday. Today we are supposed to hit the upper 20s, which sounds marvelous. I like winter, but in moderation, and there is nothing moderate about this weather.

The past two weeks have been pretty much a bacchanalia of good food and fun. Christmas week was full of cookies, turkey and gravy, eggnog (homemade, thank you) and all manner of other goodies. Our week in Florida was much the same, with a little beach time and a not-so-successful trip to the u-pick citrus farm thrown in. Partner crabby proprietors and less than stellar fruit and you get customers that won’t go back. But we laughed it off and went home to make a lemon tart with store lemons.

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All the fun led to a burning desire to eat better. We are just a little overindulged, to say the least. All we are craving are healthy dishes and hot beverages (it is -3 F as I type this. Can I have another cup of tea, please?). Oh, and funny of funnies, what we really want is roast chicken with plain vegetables and we have yet to find chicken in the stores. Well, there were a few packages of drumsticks, but we aren’t fans. Nothing like a weekend snowstorm with almost record-breaking accumulations to slow down deliveries and ramp up demand. We had veggie pasta Sunday and fish tacos last night. Pork tenderloin is substituting for the chicken tonight. I imagine the chicken truck will arrive sometime soon and we can get our chicken fix later in the week.

I know we probably aren’t the only ones who are craving healthy dinners. And if they are easy to throw together, all the better. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

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Blackened fish on a bed of greens

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Citrus roasted chicken (hopefully your grocery store has chicken)

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Roasted vegetables over pasta

Stop and Smell the Cookies

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We have been baking for Christmas for the past few weeks. At last count we made sixteen different kinds of sweet treats – mostly cookies, but also toffee bars, marshmallows and fudge. And we came up with a few new recipes that I will be sharing with you soon, after a few more test batches to tweak them a bit.

I am done with the Christmas baking for this year. At least I think I am. We have enough cookies for gifts. We have enough cookies for holiday parties. We have enough cookies to set out when family comes over. And I don’t have any more time to bake – the schedule is full until after New Year’s Day. But I keep thinking of new cookies I want to bake – maybe just one more batch of almond shortbreads or cocoa snowflakes. I need to stop.

Along with reining in my compulsion to bake, I am also trying to rein in my need for perfection. Several batches didn’t turn out like I wanted this year – even the ones that I didn’t royally mess up with obvious mistakes. The gingersnaps tasted fabulous this year, but about half of them were flat, flat, flat. And the cocoa snowflakes spread out too much and were flatter and crunchier than I would have liked. And I messed up the Russian teacakes. And…

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All through the baking, and the packaging, and the gifting I have to talk to myself. I know no one will look at the cookies with my critical eye. I tend to forget that I am making the cookies for family and friends, as a gift of love and time. That is all they see, and that is all I should be giving. Not the worries that they aren’t perfect, or that last year’s were better, or that someone else could do better than I could.

I know I’m not alone in doing this. Maybe not about baking, but about finding gifts for our families and friends. We worry that we won’t have enough presents for people, or that we spent too much, or too little. Or that it’s the wrong color, the wrong size or just the wrong thing. I know it’s cliché to talk about finding the reason for the season, but sometimes the clichés are spot on. We all need to take a deep breath, step back a bit and relax about the whole thing – the to do lists, the parties, the gifts, the wrapping. It will all come together in the end and it will all be wonderful.

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The whirlwind of fun starts tomorrow for us, and it goes pretty much until after New Year’s Day. My brother and sister-in-law are visiting for Christmas week. Then we leave for Florida to spend a week with Rich’s parents. We are in for two weeks of family game nights, way too much food and plenty of visiting time. And you know they’ll be plenty of cooking and baking going on, just maybe no cookies.

In the spirit of letting go and enjoying the season, I’m taking a couple of weeks off from writing blog posts. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

How Not to Make Russian Teacakes

Kitchen mishaps happen to us all, but I seem to be having a rash of them lately. Thanksgiving week it was the turkey and the oven. Last week it was the half recipe of the chocolate olive oil cookies. This week it was Russian teacakes.

Rich and Calvin help with all the other cookies we bake for Christmas gifts, but Russian teacakes are mine. I make the dough by myself, and I do the baking and powdered sugar coating by myself. I have a system and it is my alone time in the kitchen every Christmas season.

It is both calm and restful to me as I work my way through my tried and true system. I make the dough one day and leave it to chill until I have a block of uninterrupted time. On baking day, I get into a rhythm of baking and coating hot cookies in powdered sugar. In about an hour I have a double of batch of snowy, powdered sugar covered, buttery cookie balls.

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This year the process was not so calm and restful. I looked into the oven while the first batch was baking to find the pan full of flat, buttery puddles. I guess I didn’t put enough flour in the dough. The cookies usually start out as balls, and they bake up into slightly bigger balls. Not these. I had mixed up the dough almost a week before, so I had no idea if I had put all the flour in. I doubled the recipe, which meant I needed four cups of flour. I guess I lost count.

I should have used the mise en place method, which is French for “put everything in bowls that you will have to wash later since you don’t have a staff of apprentice chefs to wash them for you.” Or, if you want to be particular, it means measure everything out before you start. I don’t usually do this, but I do get all the ingredients out that I need, and I put them back in the cabinet as I use them. Obviously that didn’t help me keep track of my cups of flour.

To save the dough I added a cup of flour. Then I baked one cookie to see if that was the answer. It seemed to be, but the dough was too warm for the ball to retain its shape as well as it should have. I really wanted to get the cookies done that day, so I portioned out all of the dough into balls and chilled them for a few minutes. That was so much easier than chipping off hard blocks of chilled dough that I may do it that way all of the time. Not the forgetting a cup of flour part, but the chilling the dough balls instead of the big batch of dough part.

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I now have most of a double batch of Russian teacakes, ready for gifting. And I have twenty cookies’ worth of buttery crumbs that will be delicious on ice cream. With the crumbs from the failed batch of chocolate olive oil cookies we should be set to have an ice cream sundae party when the family is here at Christmas. It’s the baker’s version of making lemonade out of lemons.

Real World Cooking isn’t Always Pretty

News flash: we all screw up when we are cooking. Sometimes it is the slightly too brown grilled cheese sandwich or the slightly too rare steak. Other times it means breaking out the mop to clean up a spectacular spill, or smoke alarms and mandatory oven cleaning. Saturday was the latter. I’m talking clouds of greasy steam, billows of smoke and a blackened oven.

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I was cooking a small second Thanksgiving dinner to share with my parents. We had all celebrated at my cousin’s house this year, which was wonderful, but it left us with no leftovers. That situation couldn’t go on, hence, the second dinner.

At the very end of its cooking time, we checked on the turkey to see if it was done early. It was, but my parents were still on the road, so I pushed the turkey back into the oven so it would stay hot until they arrived. Or, rather, I tipped the turkey off the back of the pulled-out rack and poured turkey drippings and broth all over the bottom of the oven. Chaos ensued. And my parents walked in at that very inopportune moment.

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After much mopping in the hot oven, with wads of paper towels held in tongs, the billowing smoke and steam stopped. I washed the greasy splatters off my glasses and got on with cooking the rest of dinner, which turned out to be quite tasty. We even had enough turkey broth left to make a killer gravy. And I now have a beautifully clean oven.

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Pie, Mashed Potatoes and Fireplaces

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The other day Calvin asked me about Thanksgivings when I was a kid. I realized I had never told him any of my memories. The conversation sparked a need to write them down. I have been working on this post since he and I had that conversation two weeks ago. I don’t know why it is so hard to get the memories down. I think it is difficult to get the words to mesh with the images and memories in my head. What I remember looks different once it is down on paper.

Thanksgivings when I was growing up were food and family. It is as simple as that. My grandparents lived close and we were at their house all the time, for Sunday dinners, just to drop by and for family card game nights. But Thanksgiving was different, somehow. No one was rushing off to finish chores or do yard work. Everyone was in it for the day.

Grandpa usually made a fire in the fireplace in the family room. The room really wasn’t really big enough for the table extended to its full length, three easy chairs, a crowd of people and the heat of the fire. Yes, it was cozy, but it was also warm, warm, warm. You knew not to wear your heaviest sweater to Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s.

Grandma would make her usual mountain of mashed potatoes. And she would offer them at the table with the zeal of a used car salesman, “Are you sure you can’t eat just a few more? There are plenty.” And there were. Lots. Always.

My Great Aunt Helen always sat next to my dad and asked him to serve her a nice piece of dark meat. She didn’t like white meat, or lean meat when we had roasts at Sunday dinner. She was old school and she liked her rich foods. She lived well into her 90s, so there is a lesson there, I think. Probably her health came from her attitude more than her diet – she was never without a laugh and a smile. And a dollar for each of the kids. Slipped clandestinely into our hands when we gave her a hug.

We ate the big dinner early in the afternoon and then sat around playing cards and visiting. My uncle usually took a nap in a chair in the corner. It always fascinated me that he could sleep right in the middle of all the hubbub. Now that I am an adult, I understand. I think I have had a few of those corner naps myself.

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Pie for supper was the highlight of the day for me. After our afternoon of cutthroat games of King’s Corner and Skip-Bo, we would pull out the leftovers. I usually made a token turkey sandwich on a roll and then ate just enough of it to get by. What I really wanted was permission to eat more pie. Once I had Mom’s blessing I would start on the pie – a sliver of pumpkin, a slice of pecan, a bite of apple. If there happened to be any other kinds, I would try those too. For me Turkey Day was, and is, more about the pie than the turkey.

Pie, mashed potatoes, fireplaces, card games and family – that pretty much sums up my Thanksgiving when I was little. What are your favorite memories of Thanksgiving?

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Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. I’m taking the rest of the week off to enjoy the family time. I’ll be back next week.

An Hour in the Park

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A few weeks ago we spent a magical hour in Tower Grove Park. Rich was on a quest to take a picture of a certain intersection in the city of St. Louis. He received his assignment (and he chose to accept it) at the kickoff party for the St. Louis DART project. The whole aim of the project is to get people to take a closer look at their city, through a camera. Participants pay $5 to throw a dart at a map of St. Louis. They have to submit a picture of wherever their dart lands – one picture that embodies what they saw and felt at that location.

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Rich’s dart landed at the corner of Magnolia and Kingshighway, which is one of the corners of Tower Grove Park. We set off on a Sunday afternoon. Rich and Calvin were on missions to take pictures. I went along for the ride. Sure, they would have shared their cameras with me, but I was in a contemplative mood.

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The weather was gorgeously sunny and breezy, and the trees were almost at their fall peak. I spent my time wandering and exploring our corner of the park while Rich and Calvin snapped away. I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to stay in the sun – the wind was a little chillier and stronger than we had thought.

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It was nice to take a little while to just be. I basked in the sun, stared at the blue sky and marveled at the bright leaves. I didn’t think about things I needed to get done. I didn’t plan my upcoming week or obsess over things that happened the previous week. I was in the moment and it was both exhilarating and relaxing at the same time.

IMG_0022Rich got his picture. Calvin got a few of his own. And I got to recharge and relax while spending time with the family. Not a bad Sunday afternoon, all in all.

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Hickory Nuts from the Woods

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We spent the day at my parents’ house on Saturday. Two of my aunts and several cousins were visiting for the weekend. We planned to spend the day visiting, eating and enjoying the wonderful fall weather.

It was a perfect fall day in the country – sunny and warm enough to dispense with a jacket. We spent as much time outside as we could, soaking up the sun and warm air against the winter.

Some of us took a walk while the rest of the crew succumbed to the pull of a Saturday afternoon nap. On the walk, my mom found a few hickory nuts lying next to the road. I had never seen a hickory nut and was intrigued. We took the four we found back with us and cracked them. Only one had any meat inside, but it was good. Dad said he knew of another tree about a half mile down the road.

We hit the jackpot with the second tree. The squirrels had bypassed the nuts, for some reason. We found way more than anyone was interested in picking up. I would have gathered more than we did, but everyone else was done.

We walked back and cracked a few of the shells. Then a couple of us attempted to pick the nuts from the shells. Tedious work, to be sure. The nuts were oily and came out of the shells in bits. Our hands were covered with oily grit by the time we decided we were done. We ended up with about a half cup of nut bits.

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I have since done an internet search on the best way to crack and pick hickory nuts. You know it’s a bad sign when every place you look has a different method. To me that means none of them work particularly well. There seems to be a knack to cracking the shell in the first place so you don’t pulverize the nut inside. I don’t have it.

The hickory nuts taste like mild pecans and they smell a little like a cross between a pecan and a hazelnut. They are pretty good. Not sure they are good enough for all the work to shell them, but they were free.

There is something so enticing about free food from the uncultivated woods. I love the idea of gathering nature’s bounty and taking it home to stockpile it for the winter. What does that make me? A squirrel collecting nuts for the winter? A throwback to hunters and gatherers?

Whatever I am, I am also the proud owner of several pounds of hickory nuts. I am going to be on intimate terms with these nuts until I get free them from their shells. You can better believe I am going to showcase them in something baked, when they are ready for their debut. Hickory nut shortbread cookies, anyone?

And So It Begins

Have you heard? Thanksgiving is coming.  Christmas is coming. Time to spend money. Time to make food. Time to panic.

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Not really, but I am starting to plan when and what I am going to bake for Christmas presents. And what I am going to make for Thanksgiving desserts. And what kind of sweet potatoes I’ll make this year. And if I am going to try making a cranberry sauce that this canned cranberry sauce lover will like.

On top of all that holiday planning, I need to plan what to bake to sell at a vendor and craft fair at my church in a couple of weeks. It is the Friday before Thanksgiving, which means I really need to plan how to fit in all the baking.

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Periodically I get a little lightheaded when I think about making time for all the baking along with everything else I have to do. And I have to remember to do all the other stuff to get ready for the fair – cooking class flyers, price lists, signs, business cards, gift certificates, packaging materials. And figure out table decorations – not my strong point.

Can you tell I’m a little scattered these days? I chalk it up to the busy-ness of the coming months. And the planning I need to do. I guess I need to stop planning when to plan and just do it – lists, timetables, recipes, shopping lists.

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I’ll be selling gooey butter tarts at the fair – chocolate, traditional and peanut butter. I’ll also have mini loaves of homemade white and whole wheat bread. And organic rosemary bundles, ready to use or to give as gifts – they make great hostess gifts. If people don’t want baked goods, I’ll also have plenty of gift certificates for cooking classes. Those make great holiday gifts – easy to wrap and I’ll customize the class to the recipient.

Let’s be real. Yes, I am stressing a little right now. And it’s too early to start baking. But it’s never too early to advertise. If you are in the St. Louis area, come see me at the vendor and craft fair at Ivy Chapel UCC in Chesterfield on November 22 from 5:30-9:00.

A Day of Fun

Calvin has a day off school and he and I are spending it together. We are checking out a new doughnut shop this morning – Strange Donuts for anyone who’s curious. Then we are hitting Penzey’s to stock up on cinnamon, cocoa and salt, of all things. And we can’t head to that part of town without a visit to Kakao to pick up a few of their sea salt caramels.

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Of course we are fitting in some kitchen time. We are keeping it simple with only two projects – sour cream twists and Middle Eastern flatbread. The twists are for a fundraiser at church tomorrow, so we can’t eat those. Except for the broken and not-so-pretty ones. And we have to taste for quality control. We can’t donate untested baked goods, after all. The bread is for dinner. We are having another Fondue Friday tonight to top off our day.

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Doughnuts, chocolate and playing in the kitchen with my rapidly growing kid – I can’t ask for a better day.

What are your favorite things to do when you have a day off?