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Archive for November, 2008

Les Resultats!

Many of you have been very sweet in enquiring about the results of the Southern Thanksgiving.  It scares me a little that people are out there paying attention to what I’m writing, but since they are all loved ones I guess it’s ok. 🙂

In general, things went smoothly, which on its own is something to be grateful for.  Oh, there’s always the random mess-up, like when I realized the bottle of “buttermilk” that I’ve been saving in the fridge the past couple weeks was actually skim milk (rather problematic for Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes), but happily the dishes were done around the same time and the new recipes worked well.  There was one big exception, which was a terrible disappointment: the Sweet Tea Pie.  It was really sad, folks, but it was a HUGE MESS!  I was very upset about it so Michael dug around online to see what he could find out, and the bottom line is that the ingredients for the crust were mistakenly doubled in the cookbook, and that mistake was repeated on the blog where I found it, which meant the crust was absurdly thick and the filling never set.  I left it cooking in the oven almost 3 hours while other pies cooked, so it set somewhat after that long – at least enough for us to discern through some runny bites that it will in fact be a DELICIOUS pie when made with the correct crust proportions.  So it turned out to be a mercy that I’d added the third pie at the last minute, because that way we at least had two!

Here’s a rundown of the day’s work:

A Southern Thanksgiving

Appetizer: Champagne and Spicy Cranberry Toasts: We didn’t end up eating these because everyone got hungry earlier and we had to throw some other appetizers at them.  My mother-in-law and I drank our Prosecco while cooking in the kitchen and that was highly enjoyable. 🙂

Dinner:

Roast Turkey and Apple-Cider Gravy: This came out a bit dry, but I always think turkey is dry.  I stuffed it with apples, lemons, onions, rosemary, sage and thyme and people seemed to think it had a good flavor.  The Apple-Cider gravy was a hit (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/cooking-live/roast-turkey-with-apple-cider-gravy-recipe/index.html).

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes: Due to the logistical issues cited above, these were canceled at the last minute and another recipe I’d found in the Martha Stewart magazine was used instead – Big Martha’s Mashed Potates.  Just your basic mashed potatoes with cream cheese.  People liked them, but really, what’s not to like?

Smoky Bacon-Biscuit Dressing: This was a big hit!  I actually do not like traditional stuffing (wet bread is not my thing…just can’t get over the texture!) and I was hoping these would not be soggy, but sadly for me, they were still very wet stuffing-ish.  I think I’d use less chicken stock than was called for next time, but Michael LOVED them, so I think it’s a keeper recipe. (http://www.williams-sonoma.com/recipe/recipedetail.cfm?objectid=0575A357%2DD165%2DEAD9%2DCE4423F416B551EE)

Macaroni and Cheese:  Duh.  Awesome.  I love this recipe for ‘fancy’ Mac and Cheese – don’t bother with the Gruyere, the Pecorino Romana and White Cheddar is the perfect combo.  (http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2007/12/martha-stewart-macaroni-and-cheese-recipe.html)

Baked Tomato and Squash Casserole: Confession: this is actually a french recipe from Barefoot Contessa in Paris cookbook!  It calls for a trio of tomatoes, potatoes and zucchini baked in layers.  I usually substitute eggplant for the potatoes when I make this, to make it a healthier veggie side.  For the Southern Thanksgiving, I decided to make it with tomatoes, zucchini and squash and call it a casserole to be more appropriately regional.  I think this actually did not work too well since there were too many tomatoes which created too much liquid in the dish.  I had to pour a bit of it out while cooking, actually, and I still thought it ended up a bit too soggy.  This is a wonderful dish but I think best made as originally suggested or with the eggplant sub for potatoes. (http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/vegetable-tian-recipe/index.html)

Green Beans with Walnuts: This was a somewhat basic (boring) side but with all the other rich dishes we needed something green and crisp.  The blanched green beans were quickly sauteed with walnut oil and butter and tossed with toasted walnuts.  This easy and tasty basic was well-liked.

Deviled Eggs: My mother-in-law brought these, actually a mandated dish for our Thanksgiving (we could forego the usual traditional recipes for the theme as long as we had some kind of deviled egg!), and they were consumed with great appreciation by my cute husband. 🙂

Dessert:

Sweet Tea Pie: The aforementioned disaster…I’ll try this again and share the correct recipe with you if it’s as good as I think it will be!

Pumpkin Pie: I love pumpkin pie, especially for breakfast, and I don’t think there’s a lot that can be improved upon from the basic recipe off the back of the Libby’s Pumpkin can.  I did try a different recipe this time, however, and I was somewhat surprised to find that I really did like it better.  There’s not a HUGE difference – it’s basically the same recipe but calls for actual cream instead of evaporated milk – but the subtle improvement makes it a keeper.  (http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Perfect-Pumpkin-Pie-236476)

Pecan Pie: GOLD STAR WINNER!  Y’all – this was AMAZING!!!  Please, please, please try this pie if you or someone you love is a Pecan Pie fan.  There’s a wonderful background about the recipe written on the blog where I found it (http://www.travelerslunchbox.com/journal/2008/11/24/perfect-pecan-pie.html) but to make a long story short, you use dark brown sugar, toast the pecans before adding to the mixture, and use a rather pricey but very yummy imported English Lyle’s Golden Syrup instead of regular white corn syrup.  It was absolute heaven – so flavorful and rich without being as sticky-sweet as the usual recipe (which, I hasten to clarify, I still love…there is no limit to my sweet-tooth’s tolerance).  This will definitely be the new Skena Family Pecan Pie recipe and despite the high cost of the Lyle’s syrup (which I found at Harris Teeter), it will be a special treat for birthdays and other minor happy celebrations.

So all in all, a great success!  My eaters were happy and I found some keeper recipes and nothing burned up or was undercooked, etc.  I can’t wait to see what menu we’ll choose next year…it’s probably too early to start planning now, right?  No?  Yes, ok, I thought so.  Luckily there are Christmas cookies to start thinking about.  Phew!

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Addendum.

One addition to the menu below…we’re adding a third pie – classic Pecan.  I’m fully aware that this is slighly ridiculous but I promise there were several good reasons.  First, my sweet mother-in-law Express-mailed me some gourmet pecans to use for Thanksgiving, since she knows I love to make pecan pies and assumed I’d be making one for the big meal (as I did last year).  So now I have these gorgeous pecans and no pie to put them in, which I’m sure you can all appreciate, is a real shame.  Secondly, the Sweet Tea Pie has its own crust recipe, and the regular crust I was going to make for the Pumpkin Pie makes 2 crusts.  It’s not a problem to freeze pie crust dough, since it will keep for several months in the freezer, but since I was going to have an extra anyway… Thirdly, I forgot that Michael has a study group coming over on Sunday night and I like to have something for people to eat when they come over, so I figure that this way we’ll have PLENTY of extra pie to feed those poor hard-working, stressed-out students on Sunday.  Fourthly (have I convinced you yet??) I stumbled upon this very compelling recipe yesterday and since we ADORE Pecan Pie in our family it sounded too good to miss.  http://www.travelerslunchbox.com/journal/2008/11/24/perfect-pecan-pie.html Therefore, Pecan Pie is joining the dessert menu with Sweet Tea Pie and Pumpkin Pie.  All three crusts are currently made and chilling in the fridge waiting for some lucious fillings, so it’s a whirlwind of activity through a cloud of flour in my kitchen right now.  Which, needless to say, makes me feel content in the very center of my soul. 🙂

Happy Thanksgiving-Eve to you and yours!!!

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THE PLAN.

We’ve got a plan.  The grocery list is made.  The cooking schedule will be done tonight.  It’s almost time for Turkey Day!!!

As some of you know, I’ve been going back and forth over this pressing issue of the creation of the Skena Family Thanksgiving Tradition.  We’re hoping to host alternating families each year and so the plan for what Thanksgiving meal will include seemed a weighty decision in light of the precedent-setting nature of this year.  It took a tiny bit of convincing to Michael, but we’re going to go with a themed dinner each year instead of the blend of traditional dishes from both families.  I suppose this is the type-A side of me coming out that likes everything to be coordinated, but I really take a lot of joy in carefully planning the parts of a meal to complement each other, and for the biggest, if not best, meal of the year, it seemed a pity to forsake that normal process.  So the new tradition will be a themed and coordinated menu each year – some ideas I have sketched out include: a Low Country Thanksgiving, a New Orleans Thanksgiving, a New England Thanksgiving and a French-Influenced Thanksgiving.  For the FIRST menu, however, in honor of our recent move to NC, we’re going to do…drumroll please…a Southern Thanksgiving!

My inclination is to pick all sorts of new recipes that sound really cool, and I usually make that list and then have to go back through it to cross things off and replace them with similar dishes that I’ve already made.  I am braver than many folks in daring to make new recipes for the first time for company, but Thanksgiving is probably not the time to tackle too many of those, especially given the vast quantity of dishes that need to be prepared.  So after much research online and through my cookbooks, here is the final menu:

A Southern Thanksgiving

Appetizer: Champagne and Spicy Cranberry Toasts

Dinner:

Roast Turkey and Apple-Cider Gravy

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes

Smoky Bacon-Biscuit Dressing

Macaroni and Cheese

Baked Tomato and Squash Casserole

Green Beans with Walnuts

Deviled Eggs

Dessert:

Sweet Tea Pie

Pumpkin Pie

Most of these are recipes or variations on recipes I’ve made before, but a few are new.  I’m especially excited to try the Sweet Tea Pie, which is a recipe from a new cookbook called Screen Doors and Sweet Tea by Martha Hall Foose.  It’s gotten lots of great reviews, and seriously, what could possibly be more southern than a SWEET TEA PIE?  I’ll report back to you next week on how the meal worked, and share recipes.  Have a very happy Thanksgiving with your loved ones, wherever you are!!!

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Magnolia Cupcakes, at Home

Here’s the thing about cupcakes.  They are impossibly cute and people go crazy for them.  Even if it’s box cake and canned frosting (especially that yummy funfetti flavor!) they are delectable – you can’t go wrong.  That being said…I’ve recently found a couple little secrets for you that take cupcakes to a whole new level.

I’ve made cakes and cupcakes from scratch several times and I know this is probably not the technically correct advice, but I just don’t think you can beat the box cake for fluffiness and moistness.  For the basic yellow or chocolate cake, I use one of the boxes of butter cake (you can do chocolate butter as well).  The flavor is good, it’s easy, and they’re nice and moist.  Frosting, however, is absolutely better homemade and worth the time!  I used to use the basic buttercream recipe off the back of the Domino Confectioner’s Sugar box as my mom always did, but recently I have been using the frosting recipe from Magnolia Bakery.  The Magnolia Bakery in NYC probably deserves a lot of credit for leading the resurgence of the cupcake to popularity.  The line to buy one of their delectable goodies wraps around the block.  The reason why they are so good becomes crystal clear after you make the frosting – it’s probably double the amount of butter and sugar in the traditional buttercream, whipped into a sweet and airy cloud of confection.  Somehow it seems lighter – although it DEFINITELY is not.  I’m a big fan of this recipe now (as long as you’re giving most of them away!).

The Magnolia Bakery cupcakes are perfectly frosted with some type of piping bag, it appears, so the last time I made these cupcakes, I decided to try out my mechanical pastry bag to pipe the frosting.  And it worked BEAUTIFULLY!  I had to refill after about 4 cupcakes, but since each cupcake is done in about 4 seconds, it doesn’t really take you more time to frost them than it normally would, even with stopping often to refill.  And the result looks just amazing – very professional!  These were for a UNC tailgate so we’ve got Carolina blue sprinkles, but you could dress them up any way for any occasion, and people in the know just might think you flew these little gems in direct from New York City. 🙂  Make sure you use real vanilla extract in the frosting since the vanilla flavor is very strong. 

cupcakes1

Vanilla Buttercream (from More from Magnolia Cookbook)

 

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

6-8 cups confectioner’s sugar

½ cup milk

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

 

Place the butter in a large mixing bowl.  Add 4 cups of the sugar and then the milk and vanilla.  On the medium speed of an electric mixer, beat until smooth and creamy, about 3-5 minutes.  Gradually add the remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating well after each addition (about 2 minutes), until the icing is thick enough to be of good spreading consistency.  You may not need to add all of the sugar.  If desired, add a few drops of food coloring and mix thoroughly.  (Use and store icing at room temperature because icing will set if chilled).  Icing can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.  Makes enough for 2 dozen cupcakes.

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Since starting this blog, I’ve been reading some other popular food blogs out there in the cypbersphere.  You would not believe how many of these sites there are…one article I read estimates there may be as many as 200,000 food blogs!!!  Some of the successful ones have developed books or cookbooks – the one I started with is called Orangette and I’d first heard of it in Bon Appetit magazine where she started writing a column this year.  She’s a fabulous writer and I love what she cooks, so that was the first one I checked out.  (http://orangette.blogspot.com/)  She has links to a million others so I am now regularly checking a few of these little gems.

And the food on them looks amazing!!!  Some of it’s unusual (lima beans cooked in cream?) and I’m not quite bold enough to try – or just not a big enough vegetable fan. 🙂  But I saw one last week that tickled my cold-weather-food fancy and I just had to try it.  I’m so glad I did – we now have a back-up to the Beef Bourgignonne for a wine-based braised favorite!  The recipe is Poulet au Vinaigre which I must admit sounds MUCH better in French than its English translation – Chicken in Vinegar.   This is a classic french bistro dish, a slow-cooked chicken in a vinegar based sauce.  It’s a total food-culture-clash but this almost smelled like Eastern North Carolina BBQ when it was cooking, which is also a vinegar-based sauce.

The great thing about Poulet au Vinaigre is that it didn’t require lot of ingredients from the store nor a lot of chopping, and it doesn’t have many separate browning/cooking steps like the Beef Bourgignonne requires.  You pretty much just brown your chicken and then make a little sauce with onions, wine, red wine vinegar and some other spices and pantry items.  Add the chicken back in and the whole pot bubbles away for about 45 minutes, needing no more attention than a periodic re-coating with the sauce.  The chicken is almost falling apart tender and the sauce is a great blend of tangy and sweet.  We ate this with some roasted brussel sprouts but I think it would also be really yummy as a one-dish meal over rice.  Oh, and one other thing – it’s CHEAP.  I think the chicken thighs I used for this recipe cost $6 for 10 pieces in it and I only used 5.  So we have a whole other Poulet au Vinaigre coming our way in the future with only $3 worth of meat.  Recession-proof french comfort food for cold nights…what more could you want?!?

http://www.travelerslunchbox.com/journal/2008/11/7/poulet-and-presidents.html#comments

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I know that sounds like a bold statement, but I feel confident in its accuracy because of the rigorous field research I’ve conducted on this particular cookie this fall.  Michael actually came across an article in the New York Times about an amazing chocolate chip cookie recipe and forwarded it on to me (no self-interest involved there, I’m sure).  Obviously my attention was immediately piqued because who wouldn’t want the BEST version of the classic American cookie that everyone always loves? 

So soon after finding the recipe I mixed up a batch of the dough and although I actually was a little suspicious of how much better than the original cookie it could possibly be, we were blown away with how tasty they were!  We’ve served the cookies, without comment or explanation, to lots of folks now, and without fail they always remark upon how unusually yummy they are.  Chocolate chip cookies are always GOOD, so when everyone who tastes it thinks it’s GREAT, you know you’re on to something. 🙂  We made these, nice and hot from the oven, for friends this weekend and since many people wanted the recipe, I thought I’d share it with all of you.  Sorry there are no pictures – we had no leftovers!

This recipe follows the basic formula of the Nestle Toll House cookie.  There are a few little differences: it calls for cake flour instead of bread flour, has weird measurements such as ‘2 cups minus 2 tablespoons’, and makes a larger than usual batch of cookies so amounts are a little higher than you’d expect (a bag and a half of chocolate chips, for example).  The recipe calls for special chocolates with high cacao content (more than 60%) and frankly I just don’t have the time or money to get those.  I found that a mix of milk chocolate chips and the Hershey special dark chocolate chips (which I only recently discovered at Harris Teeter) or regular semi-sweet is a good combination.  Then there are two big differences which I think are the secrets to the goodness: you allow the dough to sit in the fridge for 24-72 hours, which deepens the flavor, and the cookies are sprinkled with sea salt before cooking which adds an extra flavor boost to the taste.  I pull these out when they are just turning golden-brown on the tops of the cookies and looking ever-so-slightly doughy in the little cracks so they are perfectly chewy when cooled. 

You’ll find cake flour in a box by regular sack flour at the grocery store – the kind I use is called Softasilk.  I use a french fleur de sel which is a delicate sea salt that will stay on top of the cookie while it bakes (the exact brand is in the Amazon store link on this blog under Food Products) but since it only calls for sea salt I assume you can use any kind. 

Do yourself a favor and eat one of these hot out of the oven…I suspect, like me, you’ll never go back to the old reliable Nestle Toll House recipe!  Bon Appetit!!!

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/09/dining/091crex.html

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You are going to LOVE this recipe.  Love, love, love.  It starts by cooking bacon and by the end it has brandy, red wine and butter in it.  So you can see already that I am right about how much you’re going to love it.

I first made this Beef Bourguignon recipe about two years ago.  I remember it was two years ago because Michael and I hadn’t been married very long, it was the fall, and it was a holiday (I think Veterans Day) and like a good newlywed I wanted to make my sweet husband something really delicious on my day off while he had to work.  I was still working through my first Barefoot Contessa cookbook, Barefoot in Paris (those were the days when I planned to buy one cookbook at a time and cook fully through it before moving onto another food genre – those days are looooong gone and I’m now compulsively cooking through about ten at a time).  I was recovering from being engaged, a period of five months during which I attended five out of state weddings, planned a week-long conference for 90 people in India (from DC) and went to Delhi for two weeks, went on vacation for a week with my family, lived with my parents for 2 months, moved twice – and barely, BARELY cooked.  Which killed me.  I missed it terribly and was cooking up a storm in my tiny doll-house kitchen in our new apartment when we got back from our honeymoon.  Michael and I were so happy to not be wedding planning that we ate cozy comfort food, kept up our french-honeymoon-habit of drinking a bottle of wine with each meal, hung out and watched TV and were generally lazy for 5 months to make up for the 5 months of insanity.

I tell you all that just to set the scene for the first magical time we tasted this recipe from HEAVEN.  No one else really gets Veterans Day off so I had the whole day to work on this meal.  It’s a bit of a process but oh what a pleasure the whole process is!  As I mentioned, you start by cooking half a package of bacon in some oil.  Once it’s nice and brown you pull it out and brown your beef in all the nice fat and oil left in the pot.  Once the beef is nice and brown you pull it out and cook your onions, garlic and carrots in all the nice fat and oil and beef juices left in the pot.  THEN, you pour cognac/brandy over the pot and LIGHT IT ON FIRE.  All this really does is burn off the alcohol from the cognac, but the moment when the flames come leaping from your pot seems so much more than that…you have the smell of bacon, beef, onions, garlic and brandy all wafting under your nose and you just can’t WAIT to eat this meal, but wait you must because we are not done yet!  Once the fire has died out you add beef stock and a bottle of red wine and then you slam the whole covered pot into the oven for 75 minutes, until everything is bubbly and soft and perfect.  At the very end you add sauteed mushrooms and serve it over chunky bread.  

Your end result is a beef-stew type dish that is perfectly cooked in a very, very complex sauce developed from those layers of flavor that you meticulously browned.  The wine and fats and juices all meld into a really flavorful broth that you just want to lick up with your fingers.  And although it does take a little while to complete the steps and to cook, it is totally worth it.   I think you should all try this recipe the next time you have a free Sunday afternoon, and after you’ve cooked through it once you’ll move much quicker the next time and can try it for company.  I promise you, you’ll knock their socks off.  And in more good news, it keeps really well (and is actually one of those dishes that’s almost better the second night) so you could make it ahead and throw it in the fridge to serve the next night without being rushed.  Your guests will feel like kings and queens.  Trust me, husbands at least do. 🙂  This has been Michael’s favorite dinner since his first bite.

I’ll put the link to the Barefoot Contessa’s recipe here, but please note there is one major difference in the way I prepare it: she calls for whole frozen baby onions to be added at the end, and we didn’t love these – they just didn’t have a lot of flavor.  I prefer to throw in halved creamy fingerling potatoes with the whole mixture before it goes in the oven.  They come out perfectly cooked and pick up the sauce really well.  I also add a little herbes de provence to up the frenchy flavor a bit, and I use dried thyme instead of fresh just because it’s cheaper – if you happen to have fresh thyme, by all means use that.  http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/beef-bourguignon-recipe/index.html

Make this soon and make it often, my friends.  You won’t regret it!  Bon Appetit!!!

 bb1

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