Thursday, November 29, 2012

striped crochet blanket

I recently finished a big crochet project and am pleased as peach with how it turned out. I started it well over a year ago, when I found out one of my dear friends was pregnant and I decided to make a baby blanket as a gift. 

I learned how to crochet about 3 years ago. While I am not terribly good at it (no fancy patterns or complex stitches here), I do very much enjoy the rhythm of it. I like how crocheting allows my mind to zone out in a good way. November's issue of Martha Stewart Living had an article in it by Lisa Borgnes-Giramonti (see her beautiful blog here) on the mental health benefits of crafting. My favorite quote is, "When the midbrain is engaged by the repetitive movement involved in many crafts, the temporal lobe is unable to focus on worry or stress." (Psychologist Robert Maurer).
Don't you just feel sometimes like you need your temporal lobe to unfocus?

I continue to be amazed at how taking just one length of yarn and wrapping it a certain way around a hook can result in actually creating something. I think I also like crocheting because while days, weeks and months seem to fly by, it is nice to look at a scarf or a blanket and, while so many details of that time fade, a tangible creation remains.

My goddaughter recently had her 1st birthday and I (finally) finished her blanket. I created a random pattern of stripes with gray as the primary color with purple stripes and then flipped the combination to purple with gray stripes. In this way, each half of the blanket is a mirror image of the other, with the colors reversed.

I also chose to make the blanket larger than a standard baby blanket in the hopes that while my goddaughter is little it will be a blanket for her but as she grows up, it will continue to serve purpose as throw at the end of a bed or draped across a bedroom corner chair.

Do you have any yarn or crochet projects planned for the holiday? If so, I would love to hear about them!

Monday, November 26, 2012

ragu alla bolognese

Are you tired of turkey yet? If looking for a break in between the feasts that are Thanksgiving and Christmas, I would like to suggest this dish. It is cozy and comforting (nice for winter evenings) and a good change up from the large roast with multiple sides. Also, I think this recipe is a great example of how simple simple (inexpensive) ingredients can be transformed by technique and time.

When I initially made this dish, I doubled the recipe and froze about three-quarters of it in dinner sized portions to be defrosted when the craving struck. It has felt like such a luxury this fall to have this dish for a weeknight supper.

I am pretty sure my husband fell in love with me a little more after I made this for him. It is nice after 13 years of marriage to still be able to surprise the one I love with a wonderful new meal.

The recipe is from My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss. Ms. Weiss writes the lovely blog The Wednesday Chef and lives in Germany with her husband and baby son. Her new book is part memoir, part cookbook and all loveliness. The writing is very charming. I think I read through the whole book in a weekend and on that Sunday afternoon, I made this pasta dish. If you have someone in your life who loves food and reading, I think My Berlin Kitchen would make a wonderful present!

ragu alla bolognese

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 large yellow onion, finely minced
2 large carrots, finely minced (you want roughly equal amounts of minced onion and carrot)
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1/2 cup red wine (open a fresh bottle and drink the rest with dinner)
1 28-ounce can peeled San Marzano tomatoes, pureed
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1) Put the oil and butter in a large cast-iron pot over medium heat, to melt the butter. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for about 7 minutes, until the onion is well cooked. Do not let it take on any color. Add the minced carrots and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring now and then.

2) Add the ground meat to the pot, and using a wooden spoon, stir and chop up the meat so that it cooks and breaks down into uniformly tiny pieces. Raise the heat to medium-high or even high as you do this. It takes a good amount of elbow grease and a little bit of time. Continue to stir and cook until the meat is no longer pink (at no point, however, should the meat be browning). There will be liquid at the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until that liquid has mostly evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes.

3) Add the wine and stir well to combine. Simmer until the wine has mostly evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.

4) Add the pureed tomatoes and the salt and stir well to combine. The sauce will come to a simmer almost instantly. Lower the heat to the lowest possible setting, put the lid on the pot, and let the sauce simmer for as long as you possibly can, stirring it occasionally. Seven hours would be wonderful, 5 hours is pretty good, but any less than 3 and you're really missing out. The longer you cook the sauce, the richer and more flavorful it will get. At some point in the cooking process, the fat will separate from the sauce and float at the top, so just give the sauce a good stir every so often to reincorporate the fat.

5) At the end of the cooking time, taste for seasoning and add more salt, if needed. Then serve tossed with pasta or use in a classic lasagne (this recipe makes enough for a 9 x 13-inch pan). If you plan on freezing the sauce let it cool completely before putting into freezer bags or other plastic containers.

Friday, November 23, 2012

the day after Thanksgiving (and my new favorite pumpkin pie recipe)

I think the day after Thanksgiving is a serious contender for best post-holiday day.
Let's talk through it's merits:

  • the fridge is filled with amazing food (so even if you have a house full of guests, people can feed themselves)
  • no substantial decorations mocking you to clean them up (isn't a Christmas tree on Dec. 26th like the saddest thing?)
  • there is a lovely anticipation for the holiday season (can still day-dream all the unrealistic expectations of what can be accomplished- for example, giving every one a jar of homemade jam for Christmas.) 

But deep down, the number one reason the day after Thanksgiving is the best post-holiday day is:

pie for breakfast.

Man, do I love pumpkin pie. The Thanksgiving meal itself is so amazingly oversized and good, that I secretly think the enjoyment of desserts at the end gets a little lost (anyone else feel this way?)
But pumpkin pie chilled out the fridge the next day with a mug of hot coffee? perfection.

This year I tried a new pumpkin pie recipe and both my husband and I love it so much, I thought I would share. I first read about this recipe on Elsie & Emma's blog, A Beautiful Mess. They took a Paula Deen recipe and instead of using the cream cheese, substituted an equal amount of mascarpone (genius). The result is a very custardy pumpkin pie on the brink of cheesecake.

I am a firm believer in homemade crust. It may be my favorite thing about pie. I recently acquired Deb Perelman's new book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and tried out her recipe for all-butter pie crust. I believe it will be my new go-to pie crust recipe- it is very good.

mascarpone pumpkin pie

1 8 ounce container mascarpone, room temperature
2 cups canned pumpkin, mashed
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg plus 2 egg yolks, slightly beaten
1 cup half-and-half
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger (optional- I substituted 1/2 teaspoon fresh nutmeg)
1 9-inch pie crust
whipped cream, for topping

1) Place pie dough in 9-inch pie pan and press down along the bottom and all sides. Pinch and crimp the edges together to make a pretty pattern. Put the pie shell back into the freezer for an hour to firm up. (I love this recipes assumption that the pie crust came from the freezer in the first place and we're just going to be putting it back into the freezer. But I will save my pie crust rant for another day.)

2)  Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove pie crust from the freezer and fit a piece of aluminum foil to cover the inside of the shell completely. Fill the shell up to the edges with pie weights or dried beans (about 2 pounds) and place it in the oven. Bake for 10 minutes, remove the foil and pie weights and bake for another 10 minutes or until the crust is dried out and beginning to color.

3) For the filling, in a large mixing bowl, beat the mascarpone with a hand mixer. Add the pumpkin and beat until combined. Add the sugar and salt, and beat until combined. Add the eggs mixed with the yolks, half-and-half, and melted butter, and beat until combined. Finally add the vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger (or nutmeg), if using, and beat until incorporated.

4) Pour the filling into the warm prepared pie crust and bake for 50 minutes or until the center is set. Place the pie on a wire rack and cool to room temperature. Cut into slices and top each piece with a generous amount of whipped cream.

We have a very low-key day ahead of us. This is how Harriet plans to spend the day:

To be fair, yesterday was exhausting for her- with the running around the kitchen trying to keep up with all the food preparation to ensure no fallen crumb went uneaten. :)
(In case you're wondering, top right corner of the picture is a mess of yarn- I am currently working on crocheting Christmas garland to drape around the house to warm things up for the holidays.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

favorite holiday bread

When the weather turns cool, I look forward to making bread. In summer, I must admit I am not inspired to make zucchini bread. When I have extra bananas, I am more likely to make these cupcakes, over banana bread. But come fall, I am jazzed to make pumpkin bread, pear bread and cranberry bread.

I put together the platter above with slices from all three of my favorite fall breads and a little crock of honey butter (mix up softened butter with honey).

While I waited for the fresh baked breads to cool, I studded clementines with cloves and watched holiday movies. They filled the house with such lovely smell and to share the festivity, I tucked a few in around the edge of the platter.

Both the pear and cranberry bread keep beautifully and would be a great treat to have on hand for house guests.

I wish you a beautiful Thanksgiving Holiday filled with delicious food and dear friends and family!

cranberry bread

Food writing has always captivated me and this started at an early age. There is a wonderful children's book, "Cranberry Thanksgiving", and the writing and illustrations are straightforward and charming. It is a story about a prized cranberry bread recipe and an attempt to steal it by a Thanksgiving day dinner guest.

It is fun as an adult to re-visit children's books and discover plot subtleties that originally escaped you or  to again be mesmerized by the story. Imagine my delight when a few years ago I revisited "Cranberry Thanksgiving" and realized the recipe for the famed cranberry bread is on the last page of the book. 

This is where I feel it is important to pause and say a word about the flavor combination of cranberry and orange. In my opinion, as a result of appearing in too many over processed commercial baked goods, it has been much maligned of late. If you feel the same as me in this regard, I would just ask you to have faith and try this recipe. The use of fresh cranberries is key and their tart sour sweetness are perfect paired with the fresh orange juice/zest in the batter. 

Also, the recipe calls for 11/2 cups raisins and 1 1/2 cups cranberries. I have no faith whatsoever in raisins in my baked goods. As my husband likes to say, "raisin cookies that look like chocolate chip cookies are the main reason I have trust issues." Therefore, I double the cranberries to 3 cups. The recipe says it is okay to do that and I find it is really the only way forward. 

cranberry bread 

2 cups sifted all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup butter
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon grated orange peel
3/4 cup orange juice (fresh squeezed)
1 1/2 cups raisins (bleh)
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped

1) Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda into a large bowl.

2) Cut in butter until mixture is crumbly. Add egg, orange peel, and orange juice all at once; stir just until mixture is evenly moist. Fold in raisins or cranberries.

3) Spoon into a greased 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from pan; cool on a wire rack.

If you choose, you may substitute cranberries for the raisins and have an all cranberry bread.

Monday, November 19, 2012

pear bread

I am ashamed that I am just now sharing this recipe with you all. Of all the food to ever come out of my kitchen, this bread is by far the item I love to share the most. It is simply really good. The pear is such an unexpected element. It melts beautifully into the subtle spice of the bread. It takes a common idea, like banana or zucchini bread, and elevates it. If I was to invite Nigella Lawson over for tea, I would make her this bread. I firmly believe she would adore it.

I love this recipe not only for the outcome but also for it's practicality. When pears are overripe, a mushy grittiness appears that I cannot handle. This recipe is an excellent place to stash 2 to 3 pears that have overstayed their welcome.

I wanted to share this recipe the week of Thanksgiving as I would guess a few folks may be decorating their table with assorted fall fruits or receiving fruit baskets thank you's from turkey-day guests. Should you find yourself with a couple pears past their prime, please take a moment to try this out.

This recipe is from The Joy of Cooking.

pear bread

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (I bump this up a bit and use fresh ground)
1 large egg
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups grated peeled ripe pears, with juice (generally 2-3 pears)
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans (I omit)

1) Position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 x 5-inch (8 cup) loaf pan.

2) Whisk together thoroughly the dry ingredients.

3) In a separate large bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients (egg, oil, vanilla, lemon zest and juice, and grated pear.)

4) Add the flour mixture to the wet mixture and fold until about three-quarters of the dry ingredients are moistened. Add the pecans (if using) and fold just until the dry ingredients are moistened.

5) Scrape the batter into the pan and spread evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 20 minutes. Let cool in the pan on a rack for 5 to 10 minutes before unmolding to cool completely on the rack.