Monday, December 31, 2012

mac & cheese

(If you're a Friends fan, like me, the first thing you think of when you read this title is the episode where Joey becomes the star of a TV series, "Mac & Cheese.")

I made this as my great caloric send-off to 2012 and welcome to 2013.

Yesterday was one of those lovely quiet post-Christmas days: woke-up, enjoyed a mug of coffee, had a nice long phone visit with my older sister and took the pup for a walk. We have been lucky to have cool weather (well, cool for So Cal) during the holidays this year. It has made all the difference for me. When it is cool and I need to bundle up, everything just feels more like the holidays. Yesterday, as we walked around the neighborhood, dark grey skies were moving in from the southwest and the rain was just beginning to sputter. The neighborhood was also full of after Christmas sights: a Dad teaching his young son to ride a new bike (my hunch is it was a present) and I spotted three houses with the garage doors thrown open, music blaring on some old cassette player and garage contents in various stages of organization (with more than a few things piled up at the curb.) It was a nice brisk walk and I was reminded how glad I am to live in a town where I can walk my dog down main street and everyone stops to say hello (people love dachshunds.) Harriet even met a very nice old black lab (his gray chin gave away his age).

My sister and I talked yesterday of how we use the days leading up to the New Year to piece together thoughts about our year and how we're really doing. I have spent a little time each morning writing, reading, mulling and it is helping me have peace on 2012 and put together goals for 2013. (Speaking of goals, Elise's blog has a great post on how she picks one word to theme the new year. I very much like this idea. If you're interested, read it here.)

In the midst of all this reflection and relaxation, I decided I wanted to make a big dish of macaroni and cheese to celebrate 2013. The recipe is Ina Garten's. It is pretty easily assembled and while it does require purchasing a small fortune in cheese, the recipe is the perfect balance of nutty gruyere and zingy  cheddar and the indulgence of homemade mac and cheese will keep us fed all through New Years day.

I wish you and yours a very happy New Year!

mac & cheese

kosher salt
vegetable oil
1 pound elbow macaroni
1 quart milk (my sister mentioned to me this dish can be a bit dry to reheat. Therefore, I add an extra cup of milk here for a total of 5 cups. I prefer my mac and cheese on the saucy side, but if you do not, please feel free to stick with the recipe and only use 4 cups.)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
12 ounces gruyere cheese, grated (4 cups)
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated (2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 pound fresh tomatoes (4 small)
1 1/2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (5 slices, crusts removed)

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

2) Drizzle oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the macaroni and cook according to the directions on the package, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain well.

3) Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan, but don't boil it. Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. While whisking, add the hot milk and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. (At this step, do not add all the milk at once. Add a little, whisk to incorporate, add a little more, whisk to incorporate, etc. until all the milk has been added. This will help eliminate the possibility of lumps in the sauce and keep it smooth and thick.)

4) Off the heat, add the gruyere, cheddar, 1 tablespoon salt (yeah, I added about half that much), pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3 quart baking dish.

5) Slice the tomatoes and arrange on top. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, combine them with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on the top. (Per my husbands request, I do not add the bread crumb/butter mixture. But the tomatoes do make the dish. From the pictures you can see I used small tomatoes. Next time I will be sure to use more tomatoes. I sprinkled a big of salt and pepper directly on each tomato slice before baking.)

6) Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the macaroni is browned on the top.

Ina's note: to make ahead, put the macaroni and cheese in the baking dish, cover, and refrigerate until ready to bake. Put the tomatoes and bread crumbs on top and bake for about 40 to 50 minutes.

Monday, December 24, 2012

salted brown butter crispy treats

While marching out of the kitchen with what must have been his 15th rice krispie treat, my husband declared this to be our new Christmas cookie. I can't fight him on this one. They are just too stinkin' good. I have made 6 or 7 batches of these in the last 2 weeks (!) We have polished off quite a few, shared them with friends, and tucked packets of them into boxes shipped to family. It is ridiculous how much they are loved.

They are good because it takes the nostalgia factor of rice krispie treats and enhances it with brown butter, a little bit of salt and (my addition) extra marshmallow. It reminds of the whole salted caramel phenomena we have gone a little crazy for.

The recipe is from Deb Perelman's new book "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook". It is probably the best cookbook I have read in the last 5 years. The food is interesting and fun, the writing is clever and the recipes are spot on. If you are looking for a last minute gift for someone who loves to cook or a way to spend your xmas Amazon gift cards- I cannot say enough about this book.

salted brown butter crispy treats

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the pan
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon flaky sea salt
One 10-ounce bag large or miniature marshmallows (here I buy the 16 ounce bag and put 3/4 of it in, so like 12 ounces of marshmallows)
6 cups puffed-rice cereal (rice krispies)

1) Butter, or coat with nonstick spray, an 8-inchsquare cake pan with 2-inch sides. (I use 9x13 glass pan).

2) Brown the butter: In a large pot, melt 1 stick butter over medium-low heat. It will melt, then foam, then turn clear golden, and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Stir frequently, scraping up any bits from the bottom as you do. Don't take your eyes off the pot: you may be impatient for it to start browning, but the period between the time the butter begins to taken on color and the point where it burns is often less than a minute.

3) Make the crispy treats: As soon as the butter takes on a nutty color, turn the heat off, sprinkle salt over butter, and stir in the marshmallows. The residual heat from the melted butter should be enough to melt them, but if it is not, turn it back on over low heat until the marshmallows are smooth. Be careful not to cook the marshmallows, which will destroy their stretchy softness; you're just looking for enough heat so they will melt and smooth out.

4) Remove the pot from the stove, and stir in the cereal, folding it gently with the marshmallow mixture until the cereal is evenly coated. Quickly spread into prepared pan. I use a piece of waxed or parchment paper that I've sprayed with oil to press it firmly and evenly into the edges and corners and smooth the top, though a silicon spatula works almost as well.

5) Let cool, then cut into squares and get ready to make new friends.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Last minute Christmas rush recipes

This Saturday and Sunday are my big grocery shop prep days. Are you making your big grocery trips this weekend to? If so, and if you are in search of some options for Christmas eve supper or Christmas morning brunch, etc may I suggest the recipes below?

  • Morton Family Strata (assembled the night before, it makes for a very easy Christmas morning brunch for a crowd)
  • Scalloped potatoes (would go quite nicely with a Christmas ham)
  • Scones (these will keep overnight unbaked in the fridge and in the morning, while kids tear into presents, the adults can enjoy fresh baked scones and that much needed cup of coffee)
  • Chocolate croissants (so easy and a fun breakfast luxury for kids to help make) 
More Christmas cookie options: 
When I look over the year, getting to share recipes and ideas together with you, readers and friends, is one of my greatest joys. Thanks for taking time to stop by the blog and I love your comments. 
I wish you and your families a very Merry Christmas ! 

Friday, December 21, 2012

chewy chocolate gingerbread cookies

This cookie is a delightful combination of chocolate and spice. I made some to share with friends and one commented, "I thought it was just a gingerbread cookie but then it had chocolate in it!" That surprise is what drew me to this cookie in the first place and I am very pleased the recipe did not disappoint.

Although, what was disappointing was the incredible mess I made with an old jar of molasses. While reading through the list of ingredients and flipping open cupboard doors to see what I already had, I discovered an ancient jar of molasses. Maybe it's the kind of thing that does not go bad, but I figured if I was going to be investing time and energy into making these cookies, it was worth springing the extra $3 for a new jar of molasses. I did so and blithely trashed the ancient jar. This is where things went downhill. Apparently the old jar broke open in my trash can, cut through the trash bag, and flooded the bottom of my trash can with sticky sticky molasses. Oh and it also found a crack in the seam of my trash can frame and seeped out onto my tile floor. I was alerted to this when my sweet puppy suddenly became obsessed with licking the grout around the trash can. Such. A. Mess.

But, my tale of woe aside, this is a great cookie and if you or someone you love has a thing for gingerbread, I would encourage you to try it out.

This recipe is from the book Martha Stewart's Cookies.

chewy chocolate gingerbread cookies

1 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon freshly grated peeled ginger
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup unsulfured molasses
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons boiling water
7 ounces best-quality semi-sweet chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch chunks (I substitute chocolate chips)
1/4 cup granulated sugar

1) Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2) In a bowl, sift together flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and cocoa. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and fresh ginger on medium speed until lightened, about 4 minutes. Add brown sugar; beat until combined. Add molasses; beat until combined.

3) In a small bowl, dissolve baking soda in boiling water. Beat half of flour mixture into butter mixture. Beat in baking soda mixture, then remaining half of flour mixture. Mix in chocolate; turn into plastic wrap. Pat out to a 1-inch thickness; seal with wrap. Refrigerate until firm, 2 hours or overnight.

(please note: this dough is very very soft. Even after refrigerating, it will be pretty sticky and soft. I would not skimp on the chilling time.)

4) Preheat oven to 325. Roll dough into 1 1/2- inch balls; place 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Chill 20 minutes. Roll in granulated sugar. (Don't you love cookies that are given a coating of sugar just before baking? The slightly crunchy crackly exterior is lovely.)

5) Bake until surfaces just begin to crack, 10 to 12 minutes, rotating halfway through. Let cool 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely. Cookies are best the day they are made, but can be stored in airtight containers at room temperature up to 5 days.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Russian tea cake cookies

I love the full sensory experience that is Christmas- the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that speak to me, "It's Christmas time!" I think each person has their package of cues about the holiday's and it's fun to learn them about each other- favorite traditions, cookies, Christmas movies, etc. I look forward to the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree accompanied by the fresh pine smell. The first morning I wake up and smell my Christmas tree, then I know it's Christmas.
Not surprisingly, I also love the tastes of Christmas. Specifically, the once-a-year phenomena of the Christmas cookie.
I have been lucky this year to get to do quite a bit of baking. Not every year turns out like that. Over the next few days I hope to share a few of my favorite cookie recipes- some are classics and some are new.
I thought I would kick things off with what is by far my favorite Christmas cookie: the Russian Tea Cake. When I see this powdered sugar ball on a cookie plate, it is always the first one I reach for. I love the buttery, subtle nuttiness of this cookie and the way the powdered sugar melts into an almost glaze. I also love how the powdered sugar mess created from eating one of these cookies can bring out a kid-like quality in each of us.
The recipe below is from Betty Crocker.

Russian tea cakes

1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup powderd sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup finely chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
1/4 teaspoon salt
powdered sugar

1) Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2) Cream butter, 1/2 cup powdered sugar and vanilla in a large bowl. Stir in flour, nuts and salt until dough holds together.

3) Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place about 1 inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet.

4) Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until set but not brown. Remove from cookie sheet. Cool slightly on a wire rack.

5) Roll warm cookies in powdered sugar; cool on wire rack. Roll in powdered sugar again.