Sunday, December 28, 2008

What 2008 Brought

Best Recipe of the Year - Caribbean Chicken. We make this a LOT - the flavor is incredible, and really - it's just a marinade and not some crazy technique that requires $150 in new equipment for one recipe. It doesn't even require exotic ingredients. We sometimes do the whole deboned chicken thing, but often enough we just marinate chicken breasts and thighs and call it a day.

Best Dessert Recipe of the Year - Pumpkin Cake. Insanely popular everywhere I take it. It also makes excellent cupcakes.

Most Surprising Cost Savings - the new fridge, which cut our power bill and our food bill. It was a steal itself - $275 used vs. $800 - $1000 new, and much more energy-efficient than our 18-year-old icebox. And now that leftovers aren't buried deep in the old narrow fridge, we are much, much better about using things up and not having awful little surprises when we go looking for the mustard.

A slight downer is that I feel pretty un-hip for being this excited about a kitchen appliance.

Worst Recipe of the Year - when you try a bunch of recipes you inevitably end up with some stinkers. And hands down, the worst of the worst was a miso-bean thread salad from Vegetarian Times. Instead of being a wonderful, flavorful cold Asian noodle salad, it was a weird, otherworldy kind of mousse salt lick with veins of noodles running through it. The hell??? Great for Halloween as a visual, but clearly a Gitmo device culinarily.

Best New Gadget - I can't believe this, but, um, I don't have one. Just to be sure, I went through my kitchen and opened all the drawers and cabinets and, yup, nothing new. Apparently this fiscal management/decluttering thing has taken hold more than I realized. I've bought good standard equipment through the years - insulated cookie sheets, a Microplane zester, digital thermometer, standing Kitchen Aid mixer, good wooden spoons (a cheap one broke on me), Calphalon grill pan, etc. - and everything is in working order. I really didn't see that coming.

Best New Resource - Youtube. That's how Sweetie learned to debone a whole chicken - the written instructions paled in comparison to watching a video of how it's done.

Best Old Resource - the library, with which I've reacquainted myself over the past few months. Realistically, I only ever make a handful of recipes out of any one cookbook. It just doesn't make sense to put the money and the shelf space into them anymore.

Favorite Food Sites - what, Nostinkycheese ain't enough?? I'm partial to:, - not a huge fan of their recipes, but it's a great nutrition resource

Wise Bread, a living-on-less website, has some terrific recipes and ideas in the food and drink section - is one of my very favorite, reliable sources for a laugh

Best Reason to Try New Vegetables - you might otherwise, inadvertently, name your child after one. Someone yelling "Kale! KALE!!" in the airport was not looking for a leafy green, but their kid. I hope to God they just didn't know... I mean, how low are your expectations for someone when you name them after a vegetable??? The worst part was that the parents clearly thought the other folks in the airport were smiling at how cute their son was - and he was indeed a cutie, but Jeebus, they named the kid "Kale." What else are a bunch of Southerners going to do but smile politely?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Is the Cookie Curse lifted?

Well, probably not - these are more assembled than baked.

I shipped a bunch of these up north and my Mom reports they were a hit. I don't care if she was just being nice. At this low point in my cookiemaking, I'll take it. If there's a New Year's Day party this year, I may bring these along.

Chocolate Bourbon Balls
2 1/2 cups vanilla wafer crumbs
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 cup peca halves, finely ground in food procesor
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces*
1/2 cup bourbon
3 Tablespoons light corn syrup
Granulated (regular white) sugar

1. Place cookie crumbs, confectioner' sugar, and ground pecans in a large bowl and stir to combine.

2. Melt the chocolate in microwave or in top of double boiler over simmering water. Stir in the bourbon and corn syrup. Add chocolate mixture to dry mixture and stir well to combine. Let sit for 30 minutes. Place some granulated sugar in a small bowl.

3. Roll mixture between your plams into 1-inch balls, then roll in sugar to coat evenly. Place balls in airtight container, separating layers with aluminum foil or waxed paper, and allow flavor to develop by sitting at room temperature at least overnight.

*Chocolate chips may not work as well as bar chocolate. Chocolate chips are formulated a little differently to better withstand high temps and keep their shape in cookies.

Getting It Right In 2009

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Overheard, Part Deux

I spent the day at my satellite office (Panera). It's astounding how much work I can get done there since my phone isn't ringing and no one is stopping by to chat.

Throughout the morning:

a) A couple sat down next to me. College-age. She looked like a Bollywood Ann Hathaway - gorgeous. He looked like John Belushi in the Animal House years. He was saying, "Let's just stay friends and see what happens later." She looked at him like he'd lost his mind. So did the guy at the table on the other side of them.

b) The business owner a few tables away was shouting into his cell phone. I know he was a business owner because of his previously-broadcast cell phone chats. Anyway - "I don't really know how to DO Vegas, though. Like pick up chicks." Well, no surprises so far. "But a friend said you just buy a table and put a bottle of sumpin' on it and that's all it takes. So I'll try that."

c) A trio of women in various stages of pregnancy. The one furthest along received a gift bag, and the giver said, "some of the stuff is not from your registry." The recipient said, "Well, thanks. I guess. Is there a receipt?"

d) Two kids enjoying their PB&J. "But I just decided TODAY that I really NEED the Dora the Explorer sleeping bag. And I talked to Santa ALREADY so how will he KNOW that I NEED it for Ansley's sleepover?" Her brother said Santa is on Twitter - he knows because his best friend already did it.


Overheard it, loved it, thought I'd share:

"No, no, no. I'm going to enjoy the holiday - not be a vehicle for other people to enjoy their holiday."

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I've found my zen. Yes, we saw Cutie's Christmas pageant and got to see her enjoy the gifts we got her and I went to the gym this afternoon - those are good, stress-reducing things . But more than that...

Right this second there are clean, fresh-from-the-dryer sheets on the bed, I'm in the glow of my pretty Christmas tree, and we just finished our hot Sunday Dinner (turkey-rice soup, using the last of the caramelized onion broth from Thanksgiving). The vase my grandfather gave me is brimming with snowy spider mums and scarlet hypericum. And I've snacked on yummy fruit basket clementines all weekend.

If I were my girl dog I'd hop up on the sofa and wait for someone to rub my belly. Life is good!

There are a few days left before Christmas and some things just aren't going to get done. This afternoon I picked up the new "Real Simple" magazine, and I'd rather curl up and read that than make little poundcakes or whatever. I'm so enjoying this peaceful evening.

Maybe this is what the holiday cards with the doves are trying to convey. I always assumed it was freedom from war and international conflict. But maybe it's this - warm contentment. A little oasis of "I'm happy with" in a vast sea of "I wish..."

Years ago I worked for Big Corporate and handled retail software. Christmas was insanely stressful and impossible to plan, and I used to spend the holidays with a good friend and her family. She made the most wonderful fruity hot tea at the holidays. We would have this hot tea going from post-church Christmas Eve all the way through Christmas Dinner. We were occasionally sidelined by a bottle of wine - two when we had to assemble the kids' doll houses late at night with no instructions in English. Good times.

One of my favorite Christmas memories is one of those serene oases. After Christmas Eve service and a wonderful dinner at my friend's house the baby was ready - more than ready - for her nighty-night bottle. I took her into the living room and we got snuggly on the sofa, her enjoying her bottle and me enjoying her and "It's A Wonderful Life" on the TV. After a little while the 4-year-old quietly curled up next to me. And there we sat - the baby finished and sleeping, her sister finally winding down after a few hyper waiting-for-Santa days, me decompressing after weeks of 12-hour workdays. My friend offered to put the baby in her crib. If you don't mind, I said, I'd kind of like to stay like this for a little while longer. She smiled and understood.

Merry Christmas.

Joy's Holiday Hot Tea

4 oranges
3 lemons
4 cinnamon sticks
2 cups sugar
1 cup pineapple juice
7 regular tea bags

1. Squeeze the juice from the oranges and lemons. Boil the rinds (separate from the juice) in 2 cup of water, for about 15 minutes.

2. To 3 1/2 quarts of water add 4 cinnamon sticks and 2 cups sugar - simmer 15 minutes.

3. Mix above together with juice and add 1 cup pineapple juice and 7 regular tea bags to crockpot. You can heat this on the stove first so the tea will be ready to serve more quickly.

And if you don't have a crockpot, just leave this covered on the stove top on a low setting.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Open House

I love Open House. Just love it. Stop by, enjoy conversation and some nibblies, share in the holiday spirit.

Right now I'm racing around in the holiday spirit myself, so just a few QUICK nibble-recipes today for anyone who's hosting or who's bringing a dish. We took Cutie to see the famous-in-Atlanta Pink Pig last night, as we do every year. She's 7 and I figure in about two more years she'll decide she's too old, and two more years after that she'll gently break it to my husband that, really, she's too old. She's cool like that.

Just a few quick recipes - for "appletizers", as Cutie calls them - before we head off for shopping and volunteering:

Brown Sugared Turkey BaconWe had this at a wedding at a very chi-chi country club. Apparently it's one of their most popular reception items, stacked Lincoln-log style. The good thing about it is that you can do two cookie sheets' worth at once.

1 (12-ounce) package turkey bacon (most kinds are really good - but honestly, Jennie-O turkey bacon is about the nastiest stuff ever. Just my opinion)
Vegetable cooking spray
1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 to 1 1/2 tsp coarsely ground pepper

1. Arrange bacon in a ingle layer in an aluminum foil-lined broiler pan (I used a cookie sheet with sides). Coat the foil with cooking spray. Sprinkle bacon evenly with brown sugar and pepper.

2. Bake at 425 degrees for 14 - 18 minutes or until done. Serve immediately.

Skewer Options
Load up your toothpicks with:
Chunks of Caribbean Chicken, pineapple, and purple onion.
Grape tomato, cubed mozzarella, a slice of pepperoni

The Mustard-Roasted Potatoes, if you get tiny potatoes, work really well on a buffet if you're serving sliced ham and/or roast beef.

This is a wonderful dip and it can be made the day beforehand and warmed up in the microwave or oven. Or, you can mix it the day beforehand, cover and store in the refrigerator, and bake just before your guests arrive. Serve with tortilla chips or small slices of pumpernickel bread.

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (real Parmesan, not the dust in the green can)
1 large clove garlic
1 (10-ounce) package frozen spinach, thawed and firmly squeezed to remove moisture
1 (6 1/4-ounce) jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained
1 container (6 1/2 ounces) garlic and herb gourmet cheese spread, such as Alouette (I used the reduced-fat and it worked fine)
1/2 cup sour cream (regular or low-fat, doesn't matter)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. The recipe says to put the Parmesan cheese into a food processor with a metal blade, turn on the processor and drop garlic through the feed tube to mince, then add the spinach, artichokes, and Alouette. There's no food processor in this house - I minced the garlic with a garlic press and blended everything with a hand-held mixer.

3. Fold in mozzarella cheese.

4. Pour mixture into a 4-cup baking dish (8" by 8") and bake until heated through, 20 - 25 minutes.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Are We Still Calling it "Freedom Toast"?

Oh, the silliness...

If it weren't for holidays I wouldn't know what a hot breakfast was. To me, it's a decadent, indulgent thing to eat something for breakfast that's not poured into a to-go cup (smoothie) or doused with milk (cereal).

So when Cutie's parents offered to help me cook on Thanksgiving Day, what better way was there to thank them than by giving them a hot, delicious breakfast? I'll tell you - by giving them a hot, delicious, EASY breakfast.

This Orange-Pecan French Toast Casserole is assembled the night before, refrigerated, and popped in the oven the day you serve it. The recipe is a keeper from Cooking Light - yes, it's French toast and it's Cooking Light. We've all heard someone order a rum and Diet Coke or a large pizza with pepperoni and ham and sausage and hamburger and NO CHEESE. This isn't quite like that - they really did lower the fat and calories from the original, but don't tell yourself this is some kind of health food. It's a treat that is more healthful than it might otherwise be, while still tasting terrific.

And this is indeed fabulous. Know how you can tell you're among good friends? They help themselves to seconds, knowing that's what it's there for and that you're glad they've enjoyed their meal that much.

You've got some liberties to take here. Someone's allergic to nuts? Leave them out. No time/patience/oranges to squeeze juice? Buy a small bottle of OJ; I used half for this recipe and half for Orange-Chipotle Marinade, which I used for pork chops.

This is great for Christmas or New Year's morning. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! We fed 5 people (one child, four adults - one of whom had just run 13.1 miles) and it was the right amount of food. If I were feeding more than 5, I'd make two casseroles.

Orange-Pecan French Toast Casserole
Cooking Light - June, 2004

1 cup packed brown sugar (I used dark brown, but light brown will work just fine)
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 Tablespoons light-colored corn syrup (I don't have any - I used sugar-free maple syrup)
Cooking spray
1/3 chopped pecans (leave them out if you wish; walnuts would be a good substitution if you don't have pecans)
1 teaspoon grated orange rind (adds a lot to the dish, but isn't critical - you'll just have a less pronounced orange flavor if it's omitted)
1 cup fresh orange juice (I used bottled)
1/2 cup skim milk
3 Tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large egg whites
2 large eggs
12 1-inch-thick slices French bread (I used the "take and bake" whole grain baguette from Kroger's - I baked & sliced, and it was fine)

1. Combine brown sugar, butter, and corn (or maple) syrup. Pour into a 13x9-inch baking pan coated with cooking spray. The mixture will be sticky; I pressed mine into place with the back of a spoon.

2. Sprinkle chopped pecans over butter-sugar mixture.

3. Combine rind, juice, milk, white sugar, cinnamon, vanilla extract, egg whites, and eggs; stir with a whisk or fork.

4. Arrange bread slices over pecans in dish - when I did it, it looked pretty sparse. Fortunately, the bread absorbs the egg mixture and really fills out; here's what it looked like initially:

5. Pour egg mixture over bread. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour or up to overnight.

When you're ready to bake...

6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

7. Carefully turn bread slices over so that the "naked" side can absorb the egg mixture - this also makes sure you get a little brown sugar mixture on each side. If you have cut the bread too thin, this will be a nightmare; if you can't turn it, just leave it.

Let stand at room temperature 20 minutes.

8. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until lightly browned.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


Usually I'm not open to non-traditional ideas on Thanksgiving. I love to cook our dinner and eat in our own home. But this year circumstances were different - our usual Thanksgiving guest couldn't make it. Sweetie was running the half-marathon in the morning. The children's home, where we've delivered Thanksgiving dinner for the past 8 years, has relocated from 3 miles away to waaaaay out in the farmland - not exactly something we could squeeze in between turkey bastings.

So for as much as I love tradition, it's not worth it if it doesn't bring joy. And cooking two Thanksgiving dinners by myself, with a two-hour roundtrip drive somewhere in there, sounded like a very un-fun way to spend the holiday. As it turned out, Sweetie and I had one of the best Thanksgivings either of us has had in recent years.

1. Cutie's parents were looking for volunteer work and asked if they could all come help me cook for the babies & toddlers. In a spirit of giving-ness not only did I say yes, but I told them they could even bring a pie. In a spirit of giving-ness, they brought two. And better yet, they brought great conversation and a kid who can sort cranberries and snap green beans like nobody's business.

2. Sweetie was totally open to the idea of mixing things up a bit. I offered a nice Thanksgiving brunch or doing the turkey over the weekend instead of on the Big Day. He found an unbelievable deal at Ruth's Chris, and we agreed that was the way to go (it SO was).

3. The kids and staff had a great, healthful meal home-cooked with love by multiple people.

It really was a terrific day with a lot to be thankful for. I mean, we saw one of our little ones - whose prognosis was pretty grim last year - walking with her little lavender leg braces while holding onto her oxygen pole. SO very proud of herelf. Giving thanks becomes an everyday event in those circumstances, doesn't it?

Some of y'all know that I found an unbelievable Orange-Pecan French Toast Casserole recipe for our brunch on Thanksgiving morning. As soon as I can pull the how-to pics off the digital camera, I promise I'll post the recipe!

In the meantime.... ugh. As I've mentioned, being the daughter of the Master Cookie Baker means I got the recessive gene on that one. There isn't a cookie in the world that my Mom can't make perfectly. I, on the other hand, have sought safe harbor in about a half-dozen Stephanie-proof recipes. And for some reason I thought I'd venture out into that cold, harsh world again and try to add to my collection.

I've had 3 disasters in the past 2 weeks. The first was one from Oprah's website - an orange-cream cheese chocolate chip cookie (yeah, I know, I know...). It was pale and puffy and cakelike and weird. Next, like a leming to a cliff, was the Chewy Oatmeal Cookie from the usually-reliable Everyday Food magazine, which spread out all-damn-over the cookie sheet and maliciously smelled good and tasted like fried oats. Maybe Martha Stewart really is evil and not just annoying. Oh, and there was a chocolate cookie that went straight in the trash.

I'm too emotionally scarred to date another recipe right now. Instead, I'm seeking sanctuary in my tried & true's this year. I'm sure that in a few months I'll fall victim again and decide to risk a stick of butter and my fragile, duct-taped-together cookie self-esteem.

'Til then, Gingersnaps are the way to go. They're quintessentially Christmasy, they're terrific with a glass of milk and they ship very well.

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup shortening (butter or Crisco)
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl combine the brown sugar, shortening, molasses, egg, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and about half the flour. Beat with an electric mixer on medium to high speed until combined. Beat or stir in remaining flour.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls.

Roll balls in the granulated (white) sugar to coat. Place balls 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 8 - 10 minutes or until edges are set and tops are crackled.

Cool cookies on cookie sheet for 1 minute. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool.