Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015 Holiday Cooking and Baking

December is always a fun and chaotic month and this year was no different- I think of it as the month when my 9 x 13 baking dishes get a workout. What does feel different is the weather- strangely warm and summery for this time of year. Lemonade weather rather than the hot chocolate kind.

Our work Christmas potluck this year was a brunch. The person organizing it did a nice job of signing up people for different categories of brunch- beverages, sweets (donuts, pastries), breakfast casseroles and quiches, breads/biscuits, cheeses and fruits- so we had a very well-rounded brunch spread. I was in the casseroles group and brought my egg enchiladas, which disappeared quickly. Someone brought in the tasty, crusty homemade bread with garlic bread. Another favorite was a cinnamon roll star (something like this)- I'd love to make that sometime.

The quilt guild potluck is always a good Southern style feast complete with jello salads. I took my other tried and true favorite- spinach lasagna (recipe from Cook's Country) and it went over well. My favorite dishes there were a cabbage casserole and a wonderful silky flan.

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For V's birthday this year, I invited his work team for dinner- we were about 15 people in all. They all love Indian food so the menu was completely predictable but well-loved: Paneer curry, Palak chana, Jeera rice, Raita, Vegetable patties. The birthday cake was a Black Forest cake. To keep things simple, I made it in a sheet cake format like so. To me, sheet cakes are much easier to put together than round layer cakes.

Black forest cake, of course, is a nostalgic favorite for both of us, and quite easy to assemble with chocolate cake, cherry syrup, cherries, whipped cream and dark chocolate shavings.

1. Make this recipe for chocolate cake in a 9 x 13 baking pan.

2. After the cake cools, flip it out of the pan and cut it in half horizontally with a long serrated knife.

3. Syrup: For the cherry portion, I used Trader Joe's dark morello cherries in light syrup which come in a glass jar. I drained the cherries, reserved half the syrup and stirred in some brandy and powdered sugar into the reserved syrup. Set aside.

4. Whip 2 cups heavy cream into soft peaks, stir in vanilla extract and powdered to lightly flavor the cream. Refrigerate.

5. Put half the cake back into the pan. Brush it liberally with the cherry syrup. Spread half the whipped cream on the cake, and spread half the drained cherries.

6. Place the other half of the cake back in the pan. Brush it liberally with syrup. Cover with the rest of the whipped cream and cherries. Decorate with chocolate shavings made by using a peeler on a dark chocolate bar.

7. Chill and serve. This is a crowd-pleasing cake as one might imagine; there was only a tiny piece left over at the end of the night.

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Almond buttercrunch candy- made this
Cornflakes chivda- also made for Diwali

Exchanging small gifts is the other highlight of the month. The reliable food gift from my kitchen is this recipe for mandelbrot, a version of almond biscotti. For people who are OK eating gluten, nuts and eggs, this is my go-to gift. As plain and simple as they look, these cookies always get rave reviews. I made a batch for my gym instructors and ballet teacher.

Lila's teachers got a small box of biscotti, a gift card and a card with a very heartfelt thank you note for their wonderful care through the year. To give you an example of why I like Lila's class teacher: we took Lila to our town's Christmas parade and on the way there, she said, "One of my teachers is in the parade. She's super special and she helps me always- can you guess who it is? It's Mrs. M!" If that is how your students describe you, you're doing it right.

For some of my co-workers, I made hot chocolate mix packed in mason jars and wrapped with a festive tea towel- sort of a gift inside a gift.

I wanted to make cookies that were eggless for someone who is allergic to eggs. My favorite eggless cookies have got to be shortbread cookies, which usually have a very short ingredient list of flour, butter and sugar, and which simply melt in the mouth. They are very nankatai-like, for those of us who remember those bakery cookies from India.

I tried two new recipes for shortbread this year. One was this fig and maple shortbread, a recipe that I found in the Washington Post. It is a wonderful recipe, easy to pull together and with a rather gourmet taste.

The other was this back-of-the-box recipe for Canada cornstarch shortbread. I added a wee bit of salt, some cardamom and pistachios to the basic recipe. I tasted one and liked it- the rest were packaged up and mailed out.

And I was the lucky recipient of this generous cookie tray from one of my dear quilting buddies. She tells me that two are family favorites- the powdered sugar bow ties are Polish chruschiki and the powdered sugar folded ones with apricot preserves are Hungarian kiffels. And there were chocolate chip and chocolate-dipped peanut cookies, and some candy truffles. The kiffels were my absolute favorites.

I did get several other sweet gifts from friends and co-workers- nice soap, a mug with my initials, home-canned pickle relish, peanut butter truffles, bourbon balls...mmm.

Are you making any gifts this year? What are you cooking and baking? 

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays and Season's Greetings to All! 

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Thanksgiving Eats

Thanksgiving- which was celebrated a week ago in the US- is a cook's holiday and an eater's delight. The holiday is officially on the last Thursday of November but it is safe to say that between various feasts and the leftovers, you are well fed throughout the week.

Our festivities kicked off with a Thanksgiving potluck at work on Tuesday. I made the pumpkin roll (the same one from Halloween) again. My other contribution was a tray of my standard vegetable biryani, made Thanksgiving style with roasted sweet potatoes and green beans, and a generous garnish of dried cranberries and fried onions.

Wednesday was the Thanksgiving feast at Lila's preschool for all the kids and their teachers. Parents brought in various sides. I took mashed potatoes and roasted sweet potato cubes. The mashed potatoes were simply made with cream, salt and pepper to appeal to the littles. The roasted sweet potatoes were also seasoned very simply and designed to be picked up and eaten by toddler hands.

On Thanksgiving Thursdays I tend to spend all day in the kitchen. This time, a friend invited us to a "Friendsgiving" dinner at her home and insisted that I not bring a dish. Well, it was downright luxurious to spend the day puttering around the house, coloring with Lila, working on a quilt and having to cook nothing at all. We just took over a bottle of wine and enjoyed a feast in the evening. Our friend laid out a wonderful table with tofurkey, all the typical sides like salad, green bean casserole, potato gratin, mashed sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and gravy. With pumpkin pie for dessert.

Friday was my annual celebration of "buy nothing day", and I joined my running group for a 3 mile post-Thanksgiving run in the morning.

When Saturday rolled around, I had a chance to cook and host a Thanksgiving feast (Part II) at my home. Close friends came over, and a family member drove in for the weekend, and it was the perfect gathering.

Here's what I made:

The main dish: Roasted Portobello Mushroom, Pecan and Chestnut Wellington. In the days before this holiday, all the blogs and food websites are buzzing with recipes to try, and this fancy-looking recipe on the Washington Post website caught my eye instantly. There's an accompanying video and it really did not look that difficult to make.

This dish was a huge success and the star of the meal- I followed the recipe very closely. We had a bundle of fresh herbs from our CSA veggie box and those really added a special flavor to it. Frozen puff pastry and cooked, peeled chestnuts came from Trader Joe's. This is a beautiful vegetarian centerpiece for a holiday meal and I'll be making it again and again. Next time I might add lentils to the filling instead of breadcrumbs.

We served the sliced wellington with some jarred rhubarb chutney and gravy made with nutritional yeast and mushroom stock.

The sides were pretty simple- a green salad, mashed sweet potatoes and roasted cauliflower.
Dessert was chocolate pecan pie, which is as close to a Thanksgiving tradition as we have in this family (you can find the recipe at the end of this post). Served with vanilla ice cream, of course.

Tell me what you did over Thanksgiving break! Or just what you're cooking and baking these days.